Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.

Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:

  • Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
  • Are you near an ocean?
  • Is it morning or afternoon for you?
  • Are you in a big continent?
  • What is your main language?

I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.

This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.

As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.


Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School

A Window to the World

While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.

I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.

Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.

Virtual Field Trips

I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.

My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.


Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School

In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.


First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School

In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.

Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.

My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.

Cross-Cultural Relationships

Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships.  For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.

My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.

Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!

Far-Reaching Benefits

Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.

My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”

 

Mary-Catherine Irving

Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.

How To Raise Brilliant Children, According To Science

NPR

The ideal student

LA Johnson/NPR

Becoming Brilliant

“Why are traffic lights red, yellow and green?”

When a child asks you a question like this, you have a few options. You can shut her down with a “Just because.” You can explain: “Red is for stop and green is for go.” Or, you can turn the question back to her and help her figure out the answer with plenty of encouragement.

No parent, teacher or caregiver has the time or patience to respond perfectly to all of the many, many, many opportunities like these that come along. But a new book, Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, is designed to get us thinking about the magnitude of these moments.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the book’s co-author, compares the challenge to climate change.

“What we do with little kids today will matter in 20 years,” she says. “If you don’t get it right, you will have an unlivable environment. That’s the crisis I see.”

Hirsh-Pasek, a professor at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a distinguished developmental psychologist with decades of experience, as is her co-author, Roberta Golinkoff at the University of Delaware. And with this book, the two are putting forward a new framework, based on the science of learning and development, to help parents think about cultivating the skills people really need to succeed.

What follows is an excerpt from our conversation.

What led you to write this book now?

Golinkoff: We live in a crazy time, and parents are very worried about their children’s futures. They’re getting all kinds of messages about children having to score at the top level on some test. The irony is, kids could score at the top and still not succeed at finding great employment or becoming a great person.

Hirsh-Pasek: If Rip Van Winkle came back, there’s only one institution he would recognize: “Oh! That’s a school. Kids are still sitting in rows, still listening to the font of wisdom at the front of the classroom.”

We’re training kids to do what computers do, which is spit back facts. And computers are always going to be better than human beings at that. But what they’re not going to be better at is being social, navigating relationships, being citizens in a community. So we need to change the whole definition of what success in school, and out of school, means.

You present something you call the 21st-century report card. And it contains six C’s, which I’ve seen versions of elsewhere: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. But what’s new is the way you relate these skills to each other, and also, you’ve described what they look like at four levels of development.

Hirsh-Pasek: The first, basic, most core is collaboration. Collaboration is everything from getting along with others to controlling your impulses so you can get along and not kick someone else off the swing. It’s building a community and experiencing diversity and culture. Everything we do, in the classroom or at home, has to be built on that foundation.

Communication comes next, because you can’t communicate if you have no one to communicate with. This includes speaking, writing, reading and that all-but-lost art of listening.

Content is built on communication. You can’t learn anything if you haven’t learned how to understand language, or to read.

Critical thinking relies on content, because you can’t navigate masses of information if you have nothing to navigate to.

Creative innovation requires knowing something. You can’t just be a monkey throwing paint on a canvas. It’s the 10,000-hour rule: You need to know something well enough to make something new.

And finally, confidence: You have to have the confidence to take safe risks.

Golinkoff: There isn’t an entrepreneur or a scientific pioneer who hasn’t had failures. And if we don’t rear children who are comfortable taking risks, we won’t have successes.

OK, and for each of your six C’s, you also go into what they look like at four levels of development. Can you give us the deep dive on one of these?

Golinkoff: So, critical thinking. First you have to have content, right?

Most people at their desks at work have papers, books, magazines all over the place. Information is doubling every 2 1/2 years. We have to figure out how to select and synthesize the information we need.

So, at Level 1, we call it “seeing is believing.” If someone tells you alligators live in sewers in New York City, you buy it.

At Level 2, you see that truths differ; there are multiple points of view.

You learn Columbus discovered America, then you learn that there are alternative narratives — the Native Americans already lived here. This is kind of when critical thinking starts.

At the third level, we have opinions. All of us have used the phrase “they say.” That will get you into trouble because it shows little respect for science or evidence.

At Level 4, we talk about evidence, mastery, the intricacies of doubt.

E.O. Wilson, one of my heroes, the biologist, says we’re drowning in information and starved for wisdom. When we’re getting to be more at Level 4, we’ll see the gaps and the holes in a line of reasoning. Critical thinking is what leads to the next breakthroughs in any area.

In addition to breaking down the six C’s and four levels within each of them, you also cover the opportunities for parents, teachers and grandparents to cultivate those skills. Talk about that.

Golinkoff: So, if you’re going to have a kid who engages in critical thinking, you’re not going to shut them down when they ask a question. You’re not going to settle for “because.” You’re going to encourage them to ask more. And you want them to understand how other people think.

If you see a homeless person in the street: What do you think that person is thinking? How do you think they feel about not having a home?

Get someone else’s point of view activated to help them recognize that things are not always what they appear. That’s going to help them understand critical thinking.

OK, so that helps me understand how these skills are all interrelated. Perspective-taking, which I think of as a component of empathy, you’re saying is also foundational for critical thinking.

Hirsh-Pasek: Yes, theory of mind is important to be able to do critical thinking.

A big part of what you’re doing with this book is to try to get parents to supplement what’s going on in school. Talk a little more about that.

Hirsh-Pasek: One of the biggest concepts is breadth. Learning isn’t just K-12. It starts prenatally. If you get a bead on what your children are and aren’t being exposed to at school, that will suggest the kinds of experiences you want your children to have outside of school.

And you want people to look at where they themselves fall in the four levels within the 6 C’s, right? It’s not just for kids.

Hirsh-Pasek: Yes. I can say as a mom, well, let’s think about it — who am I as a collaborator? Am I an on-my-own kind of girl [Level 1] or a side-by-side [Level 2]?

When I was rushing my kids to get dressed and out the door, I was an on my own. I wish I weren’t!

It’s not a big deal to let my kid try to pick out his wardrobe. Who cares if it’s stripes and plaids? Let’s see that back-and-forth collaboration is built into our routines.

And then, how much communication is built in? Did we tell a joint story or did I just read the book and get it over with? It’s a really good idea to evaluate ourselves according to the grid. We can ask where we want to grow as parents.

Then we can ask, with the same grid: What do I want for my child? Where is my child now, and how can I build an environment in my house that will enable the child to grow up with these different skills?

Wow. OK. So this is really reinforcing the idea of learning as a social, relationship-oriented process. It’s not just a grid for sorting and measuring our kids; it’s about how we are relating to our kids.

Golinkoff: The other thing I think is crucial to notice is that we’re talking about doing things in the moment with your child. Notice we’re talking about buying nothing, signing up for no classes, and no tablets. Not that we’re Luddites, but we’re talking about how the crucible of social interaction between child and parent really helps set up the child for the development of these skills.

What are the 21st-century skills every student needs?

World Economic Forum

A young girl looks at school stationery in a supermarket in Nice August 23, 2012. The new school year will start on September 4 in France.

Don’t get left on the shelf … brush up on your collaboration, communication and problem-solving skills
Image: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Written by
Jenny Soffel, Website Editor, World Economic Forum
Published
Thursday 10 March 2016

The gap between the skills people learn and the skills people need is becoming more obvious, as traditional learning falls short of equipping students with the knowledge they need to thrive, according to the World Economic Forum reportNew Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning Through Technology.

 

Today’s job candidates must be able to collaborate, communicate and solve problems – skills developed mainly through social and emotional learning (SEL). Combined with traditional skills, this social and emotional proficiency will equip students to succeed in the evolving digital economy.

What skills will be needed most?

An analysis of 213 studies showed that students who received SEL instruction had achievement scores that averaged 11 percentile points higher than those who did not. And SEL potentially leads to long-term benefits such as higher rates of employment and educational fulfillment.

Good leadership skills as well as curiosity are also important for students to learn for their future jobs.

Another Forum report, The Future of Jobs, launched during the Annual Meeting 2016 in Davos, looked at the employment, skills and workforce strategy for the future.

The report asked chief human resources and strategy officers from leading global employers what the current shifts mean, specifically for employment, skills and recruitment across industries and geographies.

Policy-makers, educators, parents, businesses, researchers, technology developers, investors and NGOs can together ensure that development of social and emotional skills becomes a shared goal and competency of education systems everywhere.

How Teachers, Staff, and Accreditors Can Break Down PreK–20 Silos

across the educational pipeline with arrows.jpg

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blog posts reflecting on the educational pipeline authored by Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College. She has taught students from preschool through graduate school. The title of her next piece is “How College Admissions is Changing — For Better and Worse.”

For years, many of us in the education field have recognized that there are silos within our institutions, particularly in larger educational settings. While this is true from preschool through graduate school, silos become more pronounced as we progress along the preK–20 pipeline.
The silos run both vertically and horizontally, and they run deep. There are silos within disciplines: English, foreign languages, math, and art/music departments.
There are silos separating administrators from teachers who, in turn, are separated from support staff in all types of positions, whether they’re coaches, student life personnel, food service providers, or facilities managers. Consider, for example, that those who teach technology are separated from those who develop and maintain the technology.
Eliminating silos — an activity I and others call “silo busting” — offers considerable benefits. Experts have noted thevalue of interdisciplinary work, signaling to students that the subject areas they study in school are not cordoned off from one another in real life. Solving real-world problems often requires integrating subjects, drawing on different aspects of each. While I was president of Southern Vermont College, we implemented a roving professor program for several years. In one example, a pharmacology professor visited different courses and discussed how her field intersects with other disciplines, including criminal justice, social services, and healthcare.
Experts have suggested other ideas, too. Based on my work as an academic, I have called for a wholesale reform of the first-year courses in law school. The idea is to show students how legal problems present themselves: They don’t have labels.
In drawing on a wealth of research and experimentation in businesses, many experts along the education pipelinehave also recognized that student success requires all parts of an institution to work together. If there is no shared message or coordinated and cohesive approach to student-centeredness, it is easy for students to fall through the proverbial cracks. My own work on student success and others’ work here emphasize the importance of looking at the “whole” student. This requires collaboration among key players of an institution: teachers, psychologists, and coaches.

Expanding Silo Busting Across the Educational Pipeline

We need to find ways across the entire preK-20 educational pipeline for institutions and personnel to work together. Our shared students will benefit when each institution (silo) in the pipeline shares knowledge. This will help ease transitions and will create an understanding of faculty expectations and the skill sets students bring as they progress in their schooling.
I have fresh thoughts about undertaking silo busting on a broader scale based on my recent experiences. I was one of three school leaders across the educational pipeline who swapped places for a day, as previously described in anIndependent School magazine article. I led a high school, the high school head led an elementary school, and the elementary head led my college. We learned many lessons, and our experience confirmed the value of educators engaging in the field more broadly — without regard to salary level, grade level, or status within the educational and social hierarchy.
Other efforts are happening in the field as well. For example, college students volunteer as tutors for high school students. College professors work with high school teachers, especially in dual enrollment programs. College and high school students participate in projects with elementary school students.
At Southern Vermont College, we ran a speech contest for middle schoolers in the region. The college students established the prompts, judged the contestants’ speeches, and organized a celebratory event. We introduced acampus community dinner. For this project, college students were trained as dinner conversationalists and broke bread with area families to encourage interest in and familiarity with college life.
However, these activities are not systemic and systematic. We would all benefit if they were. What follows are concrete suggestions to bring about consistent and widespread change along the educational pipeline. The ideas are grounded in experience and reflect concerns and trends in education on a number of fronts:
  • faculty development;
  • faculty burnout;
  • college and career readiness;
  • the use of technology within and outside classroom;
  • the value of partnering and leveraging resources in times of fiscal challenge;
  • the demographics of America’s future students, particularly those who are low income; and
  • accreditation, including its effectiveness, quality, cost, and approach.

Concrete Suggestions for Teachers, Staff, and Accreditors

For teachers. Educators need to visit one another’s classrooms. College math professors should spend time in elementary school classrooms to see the ways young students are doing math on computers and with actual and virtual manipulatives. That would inform how colleges teach math and how best to engage their future students.
College English professors should visit elementary school classrooms to see how young children write and edit their own work and the work of their peers online.
College professors could share their syllabi with high school teachers so these teachers understand the expectations for first-year college students. The college professors could then show teachers and students how a syllabus resembles the assignments high school teachers give orally, on the board, or by the week — they are just aggregated. That would help demystify the first few weeks in college.
For staff. The college admissions process is fraught with tension and can be difficult to understand, particularly for low-income students. College admissions officers can pave the way for students. They should come to high schools to share the ins and outs of the application process. Representatives could pass around mock applications and describe how they evaluate them as well as help students with essays. It’s important that these sessions not be designed to match students to these schools but instead be open to all students.
Collegiate athletic directors and coaches should visit high schools to discuss the Division I, II, and III recruiting process and help students consider the pros and cons of participating in athletics in college.
College financial aid officers need to open their offices to families of students in the local high school to share information and provide assistance — including for students who won’t attend their institution.
Leaders across the educational pipeline need to discuss how to close the growing equity gap among high- and low-income students. They can also share challenges related to retention, student motivation, educational innovation, and the absence or presence of parental or guardian engagement.
For faculty, staff, and leaders. With the myriad of social concerns for young people today, we need to articulate the importance of establishing a healthy culture early and often across the educational pipeline. Issues such as sexual harassment and assault; micro-aggressions; and bullying, teasing, and discrimination arise for all ages.
When we find solutions, we must put them into practice from an early age onward. We need to discuss school andcampus cultures and consider what initiatives would be effective. Because we cannot solve these profound issues in isolation, cross-silo thinking can also be helpful in reexamining how incidents are reported and handled on campuses. If we don’t consider a coordinated effort, the problems will persist because they move along the pipeline with the students.
For professional development. We know that educators suffer from burnout. We also know that not all professional development is engaging and high quality. But PD is important.
We can invigorate the continuing education of teachers and professors by designing programs that allow educators across the pipeline to meet and discuss learning theory and new teaching technologies. College faculty could learn so much from K–12 educators who are trained in traditional and then more innovative grading approaches and test/quiz design. Given the rise in plagiarism, augmented by the Internet and the purchase of papers, sharing knowledge and flagging issues early would be beneficial.
Professors could also learn lots from K–12 teachers about the shift from being sages on stages to guides on the sides. College faculty could guest teach in elementary schools. Meanwhile, K–12 teachers could engage with college faculty and gain exposure to new developments in a variety of subjects — from technology to psychology to wellness to language learning. I think respect would grow and be reciprocal.
For accreditation. The entire accreditation process has come under fire, including the quality of the visits, the ways to measure the ongoing improvement of institutions, and the costs. Under the current process, we try to find “matches,” visitors who lead or teach at similar institutions and at similar grade levels. In short, elites accredit other elites.
We could improve accreditation at all levels by assembling teams of visitors from across the educational pipeline. For example, a middle school accreditation visit could benefit from the presence of both a high school and elementary school teacher. A college’s accreditation could benefit from high school teachers’ participation, too. It’s worth noting that priorities, finances, and development issues are not radically different among small colleges and independent boarding and day schools.

Conclusion: We Need Silo Ventilation

The term “silo busting” may be too violent an expression for some. Indeed, silos do have some benefits, such as grouping together same-aged children. Moreover, the benefits of educator expertise in given fields abound. As one business commentator stated, without apology, we don’t want or need silo busting; we need silo ventilation. This means we need academic institutions with porous walls where people and information can flow back and forth. If we use the phrase “increasing silo flow” as opposed to “silo busting,” perhaps we will generate greater interest and less territoriality.
In the absence of silo flow, I think we forget that today’s preK students will be tomorrow’s university students. We want professors to be prepared for the students they will teach. College faculty can get ready by engaging with K–12 educators who understand their students and are deeply informed about technology. After all, at the end of the day, we are all educators of the same children.

16-0222-KarenGross-bio.jpgKaren Gross has taught and continues to teach across the educational pipeline. In spring 2016, she will teach at Bennington College in Vermont. She writes, consults, and advises on how to improve student success and has a forthcoming book titled Shoulders to Learn On (2016) on this very topic. A former college president and senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, she currently serves as senior counsel toWidmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners Company, and as an affiliate to the Penn Center for MSIs at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She writes for many education outlets, including The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, InsideHigherEd, Unplugged, DiverseEducation, Evollution, NAIS, and CollegeAD.

Teaching Smarter: Sharing the Instructional Lift Through Collaborative Frameworks

EdWeek
By Kathy Thayer

Teachers are busy. We plan, grade, and provide students with extra help or a shoulder to lean on. We talk with parents, coach teams, advise clubs, lead committees, and participate in professional development. And we constantly think about how to more effectively meet the diverse needs of our students.
As an 8th grade English/language arts teacher, department chair, and data coach at Mount Vernon Middle School in Ohio, I’m keenly aware of the challenges my colleagues face in finding the time to complete all that teaching demands—and do so consistently well. We’re always looking for ways to improve. At the same time, we also need to find supports that make teaching easier. As the saying goes, we should work smarter, not harder.

During the past four years, our school has adopted Ohio’s new learning standards using an interdisciplinary approach. We want to better engage students and enhance their learning by creating powerful connections between subject areas. We also want to leverage our collective skills and share the lift of teaching students to these higher standards. In other words, we are trying to make our teaching better and easier. Here are a few examples of what we’re doing to achieve these goals:
Sharing the responsibility of reading instruction. Ohio’s new standards demand close textual reading in each subject area. Our challenge is that science and social studies classes are scheduled for 42 minutes per day. Time is already tight for teaching the subject area scope and sequence, as well as trying to include student-driven experiments and project-based learning. In contrast, our English/language arts and math classes are scheduled for 84 minutes per day—double the amount for other content areas.
It was apparent to all of us that the ELA department had the class time and the instructional background to lend our colleagues a hand. We now spend part of our ELA classes introducing students to the complex texts they will be grappling with in social studies and science. This provides students more instructional time in complex reading and we also meet the ELA standards for teaching informational texts. Now, when students arrive at their science or social studies classes they are already comfortable with the new, complex texts and are prepared to dig deeper into its meaning with their content teachers.
Using tools that help us plan lessons collaboratively. When we began our interdisciplinary approach, co-planning wasn’t always easy and there were times when we struggled to create focus and consistency across classrooms. Then we were introduced to the Literacy Design Collaborative, a national network of educators who share a common instructional framework and tools for assignments and lesson design. We use the LDC tools to co-design assignments that capture the shared literacy standards for implementation in different classrooms. The tools create a consistent form and a concrete way to develop and implement our interdisciplinary approach. Whether it’s LDC or another tool, it’s important to find a solution that saves time and improves the quality of assignments and lessons.
Teaching skills multiple times, in multiple classes, through multiple teaching styles. Our educators also share the teaching of specific literacy skills our students need. We identify common skills, build or borrow lessons (called “mini-tasks” in the LDC design system), and teach those skills in each subject area. For each interdisciplinary module‐such as The American Revolution or Plate Tectonics—students engage in related mini-tasks in each class. Through multiple teachers, within various topics, and in different ways, students continually learn and practice important skills, such as researching, annotating, note-taking, creating graphic organizers, and outlining. Our teachers save time by sharing mini-tasks and instructional strategies, while our students benefit from the transference of content and from the multiple opportunities to learn a skill in different ways.
Recognizing students’ own connections across subjects. Facilitating student’ connections across subjects is a quick but powerful way to recognize and reinforce student learning. Students are excited to talk about the connections they make and we provide them class time to share their findings. I also use an interactive bulletin board titled “Building a Strong Foundation,” where students share their connections for everyone to see. One of my students recently reported that she found a source that she was already using for her research within the bibliography of another source. This quick connection of information allowed her to prove the validity of her sources. Without placing an emphasis on the importance of making connections, this brief association may not have occurred. It’s easy on our part and it deepens student learning.
Co-grading. We also share the lift of grading student products. As students complete interdisciplinary assignments, they submit their work on Google Drive. Depending on the content area, the ELA and science or ELA and social studies teachers provide students with feedback using a common rubric, such as those found in the LDC platform. For student projects on a science content standard, for example, our science teacher evaluates the controlling idea, related reading or research, and content understanding of the work, while I do a close reading of the students’ focus, development, organization, and conventions. We split the work and tap into our areas of expertise for feedback to students.
Finding the common thread. These days, every school is managing multiple continuous improvements efforts. A way to make sense of it all is to find a common thread that can connect each of the efforts into a coherent plan. For us, finding a resource like the LDC platform that supports lesson design has become that thread: It helps us collaborate, plan, and improve our instruction within our interdisciplinary approach. The system helps us set a common goal around literacy instruction and allows us to discover places through shared assignments and lessons where we can connect our disciplines.
These are the strategies that are working for us, but there are sure to be others that fit other teachers and schools. It’s important to note that it does take time and commitment upfront to work more collaboratively, but, ultimately, it brings us to a place where teachers share instructional responsibility and students receive multiple, coordinated supports that enhance learning. It’s really a win-win.
Kathy Thayer is an English/language arts teacher and department head at Mount Vernon Middle School in Mount Vernon, Ohio. She has a master’s degree in administrative curriculum and professional development and is currently pursuing principal licensure.

Please, no more brainstorm sessions. This is how innovation really works.

Please, no more brainstorm sessions. This is how innovation really works.
Matthew Syed

Writer & Broadcaster

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Progress is often driven not by the accumulation of small steps, but by dramatic leaps. The television wasn’t an iteration of a previous device, it was a new technology altogether. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity didn’t tinker with Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, it replaced it in almost every detail. Likewise Dyson’s dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner was not a marginal improvement on the conventional Hoover that existed at the time, it represented a shift that altered the way insiders think about the very problem of removing dust and hair from household floors.

James Dyson is an evangelist for the creative process of change, not least because he believes it is fundamentally misconceived in the world today. As we talk in his office, he darts around picking up papers, patents, textbooks, and his own designs to illustrate his argument. He says:

Dyson’s journey into the nature of creativity started while vacuuming his own home, a small farmhouse in the west of England, on a Saturday morning in his mid-twenties. Like everyone else he was struck by just how quickly his cleaner lost suction.

Dyson strode into his garden and opened up the device. Inside he could see the basic engineering proposition of the conventional vacuum cleaner: a motor, a bag (which also doubled as a filter), and a tube. The logic was simple: dust and air is sucked into the bag, the air escapes through the small holes in the lining of the bag and into the motor, and the dust (thicker than the air) stays in the bag.

He says:

This realization triggered a new thought: what if there were no bag?

This idea percolated in Dyson’s mind for the next three years. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he was already a qualified engineer and was helping to run a local company in Bath. He enjoyed pulling things apart and seeing how they worked. He was curious, inquisitive, and willing to engage with a difficulty rather than just accepting it. But now he had a live problem, one that intrigued him.

It wasn’t until he went to a lumberyard that the solution powered into his mind like a thunderbolt.

 Dyson rushed home. This was his moment of insight. “I vaguely knew about cyclones, but not really the detail. But I was fascinated to see if it would work in miniature form. I got an old cardboard box and made a replica of what I had seen with gaffer tape and cardboard. I then connected it via a bit of hose to an upright vacuum cleaner. And I had my cardboard cyclone.”

His heart was beating fast as he pushed it around the house. Would it work? “It seemed absolutely fine,” he says. “It seemed to be picking up dust, but the dust didn’t seem to be coming out of the chimney. I went to my boss and said: ‘I think I have an interesting idea.’ ”

This simple idea, this moment of insight, would ultimately make Dyson a personal fortune in excess of £3 billion.

A number of things jump out about the Dyson story. The first is that the solution seems rather obvious in hindsight. This is often the case with innovation, and it’s something we will come back to.

But now consider a couple of other aspects of the story. The first is that the creative process started with a problem, what you might even call a failure, in the existing technology. The vacuum cleaner kept blocking. It let out a screaming noise. Dyson had to keep bending down to pick up bits of trash by hand.

Had everything been going smoothly Dyson would have had no motivation to change things. Moreover, he would have had no intellectual challenge to sink his teeth into. It was the very nature of the engineering problem that sparked a possible solution (a bag less vacuum cleaner).

And this turns out to be an almost perfect metaphor for the creative process, whether it involves vacuum cleaners, a quest for a new brand name, or a new scientific theory. Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

Relativity was a response to the failure of Newtonian mechanics to make accurate predictions when objects were moving at fast speeds.

Masking tape was a response to the failure of existing adhesive tape, which would rip the paint off when it was removed from cars and walls.

Dropbox, as we have seen, was a response to the problem of forgetting your flash drive and thus not having access to important files.

This aspect of the creative process, the fact that it emerges in response to a particular difficulty, has spawned its own terminology. It is called the “problem phase” of innovation. “The damn thing had been bugging me for years,” Dyson says of the conventional vacuum cleaner. “I couldn’t bear the inefficiency of the technology. It wasn’t so much a ‘problem phase’ as a ‘hatred phase.’ ”

Creativity is, in many respects, a response.

We often leave this aspect of the creative process out of the picture. We focus on the moment of epiphany, the detonation of insight that happened when Newton was hit by the apple or Archimedes was taking a bath. That is perhaps why creativity seems so ethereal. The idea is that such insights could happen anytime, anywhere. It is just a matter of sitting back and letting them flow.

But this leaves out an indispensable feature of creativity. Without a problem, without a failure, without a flaw, without a frustration, innovation has nothing to latch on to. It loses its pivot. As Dyson puts it: “Creativity should be thought of as a dialogue. You have to have a problem before you can have the game-changing riposte.”

Perhaps the most graphic way to glimpse the responsive nature of creativity is to consider an experiment by Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues. She took 265 female undergraduates and randomly divided them into five-person teams. Each team was given the same task: to come up with ideas about how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. These five-person teams were then assigned to one of three ways of working.

The first group were given the instruction to brainstorm. This is one of the most influential creativity techniques in history, and it is based on the mystical conception of how creativity happens: through contemplation and the free flow of ideas. In brainstorming the entire approach is to remove obstacles. It is to minimize challenges. People are warned not to criticize each other, or point out the difficulties in each other’s suggestions. Blockages are bad. Negative feedback is a sin.

The second group were given no guidelines at all: they were allowed to come up with ideas in any way they thought best.

But the third group were actively encouraged to point out the flaws in each other’s ideas. Their instructions read: “Most research and advice suggests that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Free-wheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas [my italics].”

The results were remarkable. The groups with the dissent and criticize guidelines generated 25 percent more ideas than those who were brainstorming (or who had no instructions). Just as striking, when individuals were later asked to come up with more solutions for the traffic problem, those with the dissent guidelines generated twice as many new ideas as the brainstormers.

Further studies have shown that those who dissent rather than brainstorm produce not just more ideas, but more productive and imaginative ideas. As Nemeth put it: “The basic finding is that the encouragement of debate— and even criticism if warranted— appears to stimulate more creative ideas. And cultures that permit and even encourage such expression of differing viewpoints may stimulate the most innovation.”

The reason is not difficult to identify. The problem with brainstorming is not its insistence on free-wheeling or quick association. Rather, it is that when these ideas are not checked by the feedback of criticism, they have nothing to respond to. Criticism surfaces problems. It brings difficulties to light. This forces us to think afresh. When our assumptions are violated we are nudged into a new relationship with reality. Removing failure from innovation is like removing oxygen from a fire.

Think back to Dyson and his Hoover. It was the flaw in the existing technology that forced Dyson to think about cleaning in a new way. The blockage in the filter wasn’t something to hide away from or pretend wasn’t there. Rather, the blockage, the failure, was a gilt-edged invitation to reimagine vacuum-cleaning.

Imagination is not fragile. It feeds off flaws, difficulties, and problems. Insulating ourselves from failuresis to rob one of our most valuable mental faculties of fuel.

“It always starts with a problem,” Dyson says. “I hated vacuum cleaners for twenty years, but I hated hand dryers for even longer. If they had worked perfectly, I would have had no motivation to come up with a new solution. But more important, I would not have had the context to offer a creative solution. Failures feed the imagination. You cannot have the one without the other.”

This post has been adapted from BLACK BOX THINKING: Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes—But Some Do by Matthew Syed (Portfolio/Penguin Random House), on-sale now. 

When Schools Overlook Introverts

The Atlantic
As the focus on group work and collaboration increases, classrooms are neglecting the needs of students who work better in quiet settings.

MICHAEL GODSEY SEP 28, 2015
When Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking nearly four years ago, it was immediately met with acclaim. The book criticizes schools and other key institutions for primarily accommodating extroverts and such individuals’ “need for lots of stimulation.” Much to introverts’ relief, it also seeks to raise awareness about the personality type, particularly among those who’ve struggled to understand it.

It seems that such efforts have, for the most part, struggled to effect much change in the educational world. The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts. In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever. These can be appealing qualities in the classroom, of course, but overemphasizing them can undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.
Just last week the University of Chicago library announced that in response to “increased demand,” librarians are working with architects to transform a presumably quiet reading room into a “vibrant laboratory of interactive learning.” One writer on Top Hat, a popular online resource for educators, argued in a post last month that “cooperative learning strategies harness the greatest part of human evolutionary behavior: sociality.” And earlier this month, Cal State University, Dominguez Hills, promoted their installation of “active learning classrooms” with “multiple desk formations” in which “professors must change their mindsets” because “the lectures should be designed to learn by doing.” Hamoud Salhi, a professor and acting associate dean, explains, “This project is not just about changing the classroom environment; it is also about changing how instructors approach teaching.”

Meanwhile, some advocates for “active learning classrooms” write about “breaking students and faculty out of their comfort zones” like it’s a good thing, and other teachers continue to conflate introversion and an inability to self-advocate. Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric advertises a pedagogy that “seeks to overhaul the model of education” and challenges students to “forego passivity in favor of contribution and participation…students must overcome isolation in order to learn to write.” And Liz Sproat, head of Google for Education—an organization that doesn’t see a profit when students simply read quietly and think introspectively—situates “the increase in collaborative working” as an agreed-upon premise in an article on ComputerWeek.com, one that Google can make more “cost-effective.”

Introverts “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on when they’re in quieter, low-key environments.”
This growing emphasis in classrooms on group projects and other interactive arrangements can be challenging for introverted students who tend to perform better when they’re working independently and in more subdued environments. Comprising anywhere from one third to about half of the population, introverts sometimes appear shy, depressed, or antisocial, when that’s not always the case. As Susan Cain put it in her famous TED Talk, introverts simply “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.”
I started reflecting on this recently after observing classes at a public high school in California. (I teach English at a different public high school and visited the school as a professional-development activity.) All but four of the 26 teachers I witnessed had their students arranged in groups or with partners. Such formations aren’t necessarily irreconcilable with the needs of introverts, but these arrangements can inherently enable noisy, distracting conditions that make learning particularly difficult for certain students.

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Many of my own high-school students regularly request extended sessions of silent reading. Some prefer learning with the fluorescent classroom lights off, instead relying on the softer sunlight coming in through the window. Some admit to enjoying the opportunity to work in a quiet room and are eager to write about certain prompts for as long as I let them. I used to think their ubiquitous earbuds were feeding their need for stimulation; now I wonder if they’re sometimes blocking out the noise.

These are, of course, generalized observations, but I recently met with two high-school students who spoke directly and frankly about their need for quiet, solitary learning environments. Both of proudly spoke of their success at Grizzly Youth Academy, a 22-week charter-school program in San Luis Obispo, California, targeted at teens who’ve had a “history of school failure” at a previous school. Asked what she thought facilitated her success, one student responded: “The structure—I can concentrate here.” Acknowledging her tendency to get distracted, the student noted that there was “absolutely no quiet time” at her former public school, and she now appreciates the disciplined classes and quiet study hall sessions. “I’m like a completely different person now.”

I used to think their ubiquitous earbuds were feeding their need for stimulation; now I wonder if they’re sometimes blocking out the noise.
The other student, whom I interviewed separately, offered similar reflections: “It’s more focused here [at the charter school], and noisier there [at the public school]. I have ADD so I’m usually distracted.” Beaming, he added, “but now I’m getting the best grades ever. I’m able to concentrate here more.”

It’s striking to me that a premise on Grizzly’s website is that there are “students who struggle in school [because they] often lack social and emotional skills to succeed in the classroom,” and the students themselves are quick to diagnose themselves with an inability to concentrate at their former school. The improvement they’re describing at Grizzly, however, isn’t based on a cure for a dysfunction or a breakthrough in social skills—it’s just a significant change in environment. And in the five Grizzly classrooms I observed, the students sat in rows that Cain nostalgically praised in her talk—the traditional classroom setup in which, Cain said, “we did most of our work autonomously.”
Certainly, group activities can serve a purpose in the teaching of introverts. In part because of the Common Core standards and the Internet increasingly serving as a proxy for classroom teachers, “cooperative learning” has grown in popularity among teachers in recent decades. As the English teacher Abigail Walthausen noted in The Atlantic two years ago, “Common Core standards place far greater value on small-group discussion and student-led work than on any teacher-led instruction.” And overall, this trend is a good thing. Several recent studies offer the latest evidence that students who engage in cooperative learning tend to outperform those immersed in traditional learning approaches—namely lectures. But cooperative learning doesn’t have to entail excessively social or overstimulating mandates; it can easily involve quiet components that facilitate internal contemplation.

Near the end of my observations last week, I told two teachers on separate occasions that I’d feel incredibly exhausted at the end of every day if I were a student at that school. To my surprise, both of them responded by immediately laughing and then agreeing. One recalled learning best when arranged in rows, while the other concurred, “I know, right? How exhausting it must be to have another student in your business all day long.”

The ideal, of course, would be to establish arrangements that facilitate differentiated instruction for varying personality types, but this might be difficult in large classes with students of diverse levels of proficiency and motivation. I’ve noticed that, like Grizzly, the private schools I’ve visited also seem to create space for the introverted students, ultimately resembling the university classes to which they hope to send their students. And at the aforementioned public school I observed, three of the four classes where students were in fact seated individually in rows were AP or honors courses.

But I’m reminded of Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people,” when I see that Georgia College’s webpage dedicated to collaborative learning, which includes the topic sentence: “Together is how we do everything here at Georgia College. Learn. Work. Play. Live. Together.” Everything, that is, except quiet introspection, free of cost and distraction.