Making Math Education Inquiry-based, Interdisciplinary, and Meaningful

A long-time member of my professional learning network, Alanna King, posted today about “wrestling with math.” Alanna’s son has found his way into the meat grinder that is math education in most schools, and she is thinking about his struggles in light of her reading of Building School 2.0 (recommended).

We all know the story of the kids who struggle in math. Long nights of homework, tutoring, and some of them never quite become the computational experts their personal computers are. This week I was in a parent-teacher conference with a really top student who excels in all of her classes but is struggling in Calculus class. All that anxiety and stress because she believes (and with good reason, unfortunately) that Calculus is a mountain she must climb in order to get into the college of her choice. The student disclosed in her conference that she wouldn’t be taking the course if she didn’t think it was necessary in the college rat race.

College is a real world goal for students, certainly, but if it is the only reason to take math, it seems like a poor one. Students should understand that math education has a more meaningful purpose, and that purpose should not be math itself. A “siloed” math education divorces the meaning from math and for students who don’t see it as fun, the typical question is “why am I doing this?” Math should be a problem-solving tool for the real world, and education in math should look like that.

what is math?I wrote about this on my blog back in November 2010, and about Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk in which he argues that computers should do most of the computational work of math, leaving the focus on the interdisciplinary purpose of mathematics:

NAIS ’13 + EdCampIS ’13 Resources

I was fortunate to be able to attend and to lead sessions at both the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference and EdCamp Independent Schools last week in Philadelphia. Here are some of the resources I used in my four sessions:

Leading with High Quality Project-Based Learning, NAIS (with Suzie Boss and Jonathan E. Martin);
How to Support and Advance PBL in Independent Schools, EdCamp (with Jonathan E. Martin):

Workshop Website with Resources:[iframe src=”″ frameborder=”0″ width=”480″ height=”389″ allowfullscreen=”true” mozallowfullscreen=”true” webkitallowfullscreen=”true”]

Technology is Not The Answer, NAIS (with Brad Rathgeber):[iframe src=”″ height=”299″ width=”480″ allowfullscreen=”true” frameborder=”0″]

3. Teaching Writing in a Digital Age, EdCamp:[iframe: src=”″ frameborder=”0″ width=”450″ height=”357″ allowfullscreen=”true” mozallowfullscreen=”true” webkitallowfullscreen=”true”>]

10 Tools to Get Started with Blended Learning

I’m often asked by teachers how to get started doing Blended Learning. My answer is always “why do you want to try Blended Learning?” Rather than trying to be cheeky or coy about my practice, I’m trying to begin a conversation about the value of moving learning online. If you haven’t determined why you’re doing it, your attempts will be unfocused and confusing for students. So my suggestion is that you consider your goals – what I refer to as the “verbs” (connect, network, collaborate, cooperate, create, etc.) – and then create the Blended Learning experiences that fit.

Once you know what you’re trying to do, here are the 10 tools I recommend to get started with Blended Learning.

1. For those of you who don’t have a LMS (Learning Management System) at your school to host your online learning activities, I highly recommend Edmodo. It can do most everything that an expensive LMS can do, but is free for individual teachers. An interesting option with Edmodo is the ability to connect with other teachers’ courses. Edmodo has iOS and Android apps, so it’s a good mobile solution too.

2. If I were looking to begin a course from scratch and wanted a LMS, I’d probably choose Schoology. Envisioned as more of a social learning network than the typical LMS, Schoology looks and feels like Facebook, but with the powerful features teachers want. Students report they don’t want their classes interfering with their Facebook life, and Schoology gets the most out of students already well-honed social networking skills in their academic life. Best of all, it’s free. There is a fee for adding “power features”, but prices are fairly low.

3. WordPress is my favorite tool. Reading and writing are more important than ever in the 21st century, and blogging allows students to improve not only as writers but also as readers and thinkers. WordPress is the platform of choice for professional bloggers, and I think it’s one all students should learn. (If you have Google Apps for Edu, Blogger is a good alternative.) is free, and hosted for you, making it easy to start blogging in minutes. With, you can self-host your blog, and customize it a thousand ways. [NOTE: WordPress can also be a powerful LMS! For details, contact me!]

4. Evernote is a complete information management system that my students and I can’t do without. This free tool allows you to take notes in many formats, including voice and handwritten, and stores them on your devices or in the cloud. Evernote has excellent apps for all mobile devices, and users with an account can sync information across all devices instantaneously. My students keep all their research information in Evernote, and can make these public for me and others to view. Evernote also has “clipping” plug-ins for browsers that make capturing information super easy.

5. Twitter is both an excellent tool for connecting students and teachers, as well as a valuable learning resource! My students and I use Twitter as our base social networking platform for our Personal Learning Networks, bringing in the collective wisdom of crowds (up to half a billion users now!). Teachers can use Twitter to follow leading innovative educators, and to follow “hashtags” that fit their interests – #isedchat, for example, is a weekly chat of hundreds of independent school teachers. Twitter can be a great tool for “backchanneling” during lectures or research projects, allowing students to ask questions that many people can answer. (I have my students create accounts they use for academic purposes – part of building a positive digital footprint!) To start building your PLN on Twitter, follow me (@MikeGwaltney), and find more Educators on the Twitter4Teachers Wiki. Read my recommendations for how to use Twitter in your class.

6. Use Screencast-o-Matic to produce instructional videos. Screencasts are also a great way to answer the same question time after time after time.  Many teachers who have flipped their classes use Screencast-o-Matic to record their  content delivery videos (less than 10 minutes apiece, typically). While Screencast-o-Matic is a free service and does not require  software download, the $15/year Pro Account is well worth the price.  This small fee gives you access to easy-to-use editing tools, storage and organization of recordings, and more efficient ways to upload videos to YouTube (if desired).

7. If you have ever been frustrated that your bookmarks from one computer aren’t available on another, Diigo is a solution.  At its most basic, Diigo allows you to access all of your bookmarks from anywhere on the web.  There are a variety of toolbars and shortcuts to make this process seamless.  Other great features include the ability to tag, highlight, and annotate webpages that you bookmark.  Your notes appear when you re-visit those page and can be aggregated by visiting your list on Diigo’s website.  Perhaps the most powerful feature are those that support collaboration and sharing.  Your bookmarks and lists can be made public or shared with a defined group.  Group members are notified when new sites are added to a list and comments can be read by others that visit the page. Diigo also has numerous groups you may join (such as Classroom 2.0), making it another great tool to grow your PLN.

8. Voicethread is one of the most popular online learning tools in use today. Teachers may create voicethreads for students to record comments demonstrating knowledge or problem-solving methodology; students may create voicethreads to tell a story or hold an asychronous conversation with classmates; the possibilities are endless! Post images or video for others or have them create their own threads as an alternate presentation and collaborative tool. Art teachers use it to post images of student works and perform peer critiques.  Dance instructors and physical education teachers and coaches could post videos of rehearsals and games for analysis and feedback. Voicethread has an educator version that is reasonably priced, providing greater privacy and easier account management.

9. Google Drive is “a place where you can create, share, collaborate, and keep all of your stuff. You can upload and access all of your files, including videos, photos, Google Docs, PDFs and beyond.” (…) Google Docs is built into Google Drive, perfect for creating and collaborating in real time on documents, spreadsheets and presentations. You can add and reply to comments and receive notifications when other people comment on shared items. You can get started with 5GB of storage for free.

10. TodaysMeet is a great tool for creating “backchannels” during class meetings or as a chat room for students to use asynchronously.  No accounts or sign-up is necessary.  Name your room, choose how long you’d like it available, then send the link to whomever you’d like to have access.  It’s also great for public note-taking, brainstorming, etc.

This is a Top 10 list, but a bonus tool I can’t ignore is Wikispaces. I’ve used Wikispaces with my students for years as a site to host student-created work and for allowing students to collaborate on large projects. For a sample, check out our AP U.S. History wikispace:

Many thanks to my colleagues Craig Luntz and Melissa Wert for collaborating with me on this list as co-facilitators in our OSG professional development course on Blended Learning.

Cycle Drifting for #udrift

This summer, I’m taking several online courses, of different kinds. One or two are MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), depending on your definition, and another is a mobile learning course, which pushes the boundaries of what we think of as “online”. The Urban Drifting course is about learning with mobile apps, connecting data between participants. Interesting, right?

Essentially what we are doing is exploring the effectiveness of mobile applications in learning. Mobile apps are all the rage in K-12 education, if what I saw at ISTE 2012 is to be believed. But this course is different, in that we are actually out in the world – rather than investigating BYOD effectiveness, for example, we’re out in the physical environment, considering geography, landscape, architecture, etc. using mobile apps. By tracking our movement with GPS and overlaying that with images, sounds, and video, we explore how well we can learn (gather, understand data) using mobile devices.

Here’s how our course leader Dennis describes our work:

In this context we explore ideas of the “digital flâneur,” media presence, and discuss implications of mobility, social media connectivity, and Twitter-flux. This is an experimental framework open to app exploration and the extension of learning and assignment production in the environment.

The course began Monday, so this is only day four, but I’m starting to get a sense for what I want to do for a project. I’m enjoying gathering data as I cycle Portland, and I think I’ll produce some kind of “CycleDrifting” video or presentation. I have a lot of time on the bike planned during the weeks the course runs, so it’s a natural fit to pair cycling with the course.

Like I ask my students to do, I’ll post a reflection on my learning for the first week of this course on Saturday or Sunday.

If you’re interested in what the class is up to, follow the tweets at #udrift.

Notes, Quotes, and a little Commentary from ISTE 2012 Day Two

Tuesday reminded me how ISTE is always a busy conference, with more people and great presentations to see than there is time.

Yong Zhao‘s keynote kicked off the day, sounding a similar message to Ken Robinson and Marc Prensky’s keynote on Sunday night, hat what we do NOT need in education is more standardization. Zhao’s focus was entrepreneurship and its correlation to success on standardized exams. He has some pretty interesting data to support his thesis, and it will probably be worth reading his new book that comes out later this month. I had the impression that he was very well received by the teachers in the audience, despite the obvious truth that few of them are allowed to let students pursue their individual passions in this era of uber-standardization in public schools. How do we get Duncan and Obama to listen to Robinson, Zhao, et al?

I had four concurrent sessions on my ISTE Planner for Tuesday, and made it to three of them. I’d blame my good friend Stuart Posin for keeping me from one of them, but the couple hours we spent eating great food in the San Diego sun and catching up was a highlight of my day.

Notes and quotes from today’s sessions:

1. Student Work at High Tech High (Larry Rosenstock, HTH CEO), notes:

“It’s about Passion, Purpose, Play.” – HTH let’s students follow their passions, playfully connecting subjects to create learning categories like “Calculicious” (Calculus and Art combined) and “Phys Newton”: “beautiful art on the outside, delicious physics on the inside. Love it.

“”What we’re really about is social integration, and our pedagogy is the means.” – HTH enrolls students through a lottery, with no preferences, and puts them to work collaboratively from day one. Most go to college.

I’ve written before about High Tech High, and asked “Is this the best school in America?”. Nobody has yet told me it isn’t.

2. A Broader Perspective on Data: Data Visualization and Infographics (David Warlick), notes:

“”We are analog beings, but we look for patterns, and visualizations. Data can help define who and what we are in a broad sense.” – humans are meaning-making-machines, and data is another tool to help us find meaning from our experience.

“The power of graphics is NOT in the answers they provide but in the questions they provoke.” – how can we use graphic depictions of data to ask questions about the human experience? What stories do they tell? Great quote.

The notes have links to David’s session handouts and sample sites to use in teaching.

I don’t have notes from the third session I attended. PBL Birds of a Feather was a set of small group discussions on questions about Project-Based Learning, moderated by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss, and it was great. I recommend you follow the Twitter hashtag #PBLchat where much of the online conversation about PBL happens daily. And, follow some of the PBL rockstars in attendance today: @wrightsroom, @BiancaH80, @newtechnetwork, @suzieboss, @jkrauss.

Graduation Questions

20120616-102411.jpgLast night was graduation for the OES class of 2012, and I couldn’t help thinking about how different their world will be than the one I thought I was entering on my graduation day exactly 25 years ago. In 1987, it seemed clear to me that I could pick a professional career, get some schooling, and expect that career would be durable for the next 40 or so years.

But seemingly everything has changed and career paths are being disrupted like never before. Some of the careers I considered have either gone the way of the Dodo bird or are on their way to extinction. Forget about choosing journalism and expecting to settle down at a newspaper for the rest of your working life. Family Law? How many easy divorce dot coms are there now? Accounting? Outsourced. Psychotherapy? (Yes, I considered it.) Brain research might be telling us much of our behavior is predetermined. Teaching? Well, I’m skeptical about the future of my chosen field.

From what I gather from their comments, these graduates don’t quite get this new world yet.

Maybe it’s just natural to see the future in simplistic terms when you’re young. Certainly, I did not have a nuanced notion of the world when I was 18. I think I quite justifiably believed that success could be guaranteed by studying, and becoming somewhat expert and certified in a field. Surely change was incremental in professional fields and it would be safe to expect my time at university in my late teens and twenties would, for the most part, carry me through my working life.

I was wrong.

Since it hit me in the late ’90s that technology would eventually change everything about teaching, I’ve been trying to reinvent myself. The history department I joined in 1991 was one I’d been well trained for – a group of smart, dedicated, mid- and late-career historians who knew their content and had polished their standard lectures about ancient Rome, the Renaissance, or the American Civil War. At the time, it seemed perfectly plausible that I could settle into the career that they had. But of course, the internet has transformed access to information and teachers like my first colleagues have had to change or are holding on for dear life.

I’ve done pretty well since then, and today I’m told that I’m an expert in eLearning, a field that didn’t really exist 25 years ago. But I don’t feel like an expert. I think eLearning and online learning are changing too rapidly for anyone to consider oneself an expert. I know I have a strong grasp on what it takes to be an eLearning professional at this moment, but I really believe that eLearning and education in general is changing too quickly to know what’s coming a year from now, let alone to be able to say I know enough to be set for the next 25 years. Success in my field requires constant and never-ending learning. Reinvention is an ongoing process, and one without a defined end date.

It’s likely that these graduates will find the first 25 years after high school much more turbulent than I’ve found mine. Expecting to “make my Intel business card and settle in for the long-term” won’t cut it. Do they get that what they need to do is perfect being learners and not being experts? I hope so.

So this morning, I have some graduation questions.

Did we show them that information is ubiquitous and that the cost of getting it is rapidly approaching zero? Do they understand that knowing more than the next person is only temporarily valuable? Do they know how to access the latest information and how to build and use a network of other professionals to stay on the leading edge of change?

Do they know the career they’ve been dreaming of may not exist in the future? Or that it may radically change? Have we taught them how to turn on a dime and reinvent themselves professionally?

Do they have the flexibility of mind that their future will require, when rapid change will be a constant?

Have we trained them to be lifelong learners?