Because our middle level learners are ready for more independence, age-appropriate challenges, and they crave mastery of skills, we need to teach them differently. Middle level learners need to spend less time memorizing content and more time developing skills. They need to imagine more, choose more, produce more so that they like school more. A skill-centered curriculum, using content as a vehicle for skill development, is the future of middle level education.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Squishy Circuits: Hands on Electricity

Squishy Circuits uses conductive playdo to allow kids to build their own circuitry. It’s a masterful tool for helping kids learn the basics of experimental science. Because it allows for constant trials and revisions using manageable materials that produce immediate and engaging results, kids can exercise their deductive reasoning skills while they play. Kids in the middle years can take advantage of Squishy Circuits attributes, but it's particularly great for elementary aged kids. 

Each set comes with a 4 AA battery pack, many different colored LEDs, a motor, and two sound outputs. The only thing that is missing is the wires to connect them: you have to make that!  Recipes for the conductive dough comes with the set. There is also a recipe for insulating dough, which lacks the salt and citric acid of the conductive dough.

This is where the tactile comes in. Kids roll and mold the dough that has been mixed- and colored- into shapes that can support the circuit elements. The leads off the battery pack are inserted into the dough and voila, circuitry- provided the basic rules of circuitry have been followed: that’s what they explore.

The pleasure young children experience with this is immense. The squishiness has that tactile appeal of playing in the mud and the electrical outputs provide a wow factor. The maleability of the medium allows for constant experimentation and revision- not to mention the stimulating squeezing and rolling that little kids will do with something flexible in their hands.

Besides the fundamentals of a circuit, the sets provides great ways to demonstrate current flow- the LEDs are one way- and resistance. Invariably, kids stick multiple LEDs in their dough and can see how those further down the line receive less electron flow. 

A good preview of a kid’s spin on Squishy Circuits can be found at . For a more more intellectualized examination, check out the TED talk by Annmarie Thomas:

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Educational Technology and Skills Part 2: How we can expand our understanding of the value of technology in the classroom by expanding the definition of “Educational Technology”

Tactile experiences with technology can supercharge skill development. When students utilize the speed and allure of technology in combination with the tactile experiences associated with hands-on building and constructing, the opportunity for deep skill development increases. If we devoted more of our school technology dollars (and mental commitment) to hands-on technologies that allow reiterative manipulation- what I like to call “Tactnologies”- we would see students developing the thinking and producing skills we value more rapidly.

Kids love to work with their hands- and the process they go through when building and revising their products promotes development of valuable thinking skills. If you have your own children- or get to observe kids in their natural settings- you know this. My sons- ages 6 and  8- spend hours building with Legos or sculpting in the yard with clay and sticks. Its endlessly engrossing- and they are constantly revising what they have created. That process of improvement through observation and alteration (reiteration) is first nature to them; they want what they are creating to function effectively, to look good, to be enduring. 

I have been thinking a lot about how our hands connect to our brains to produce intellectual growth- and how our cultural obsession with technology can be coopted to facilitate more of this. If our birthright as a species is manual dexterity and the tactile sensation that accompanies it, we must acknowledge that tactile experiences are integral to our sense of self. The process of making and its intellectual counterparts, critical revision and aesthetics, are our most fundamental sources of skill development.  

Now, the allure of technology’s speed and power is undeniable, and its omnipresence won’t abate, so let's wed it to our tactile habituations: our schools should facilitate our young people manually making things that have a technological component. The students will love it, because they are drawn to technology, they are by nature creators with their hands, and they have boundless desire for autonomy. The schools will succeed because students are gaining valuable skills- and having a better experience at school.

My term for this is “Tactnology.” That is, technologies that can be manipulated and customized by touch-based building. Think Legos Robotics: you build, you program, you see action. It started with Erector sets in the early 20th century, and today, products like Roominate, Squishy Circuits, Linkbots, littleBits are some of the products out there that kids to generate and revise ideas that use electricity and computing to produce high impact outputs. These would be technologies that truly facilitate valuable education in children; they would be a new form of educational technology.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

“Educational Technology” and Skills-Part 1: What We Assume When We Think About Educational Technology

If we really want to develop student skills, we must be very deliberate in how we employ our tools. Technology has the potential to be an extremely valuable tool in the facilitation of deep skill development in students, but current trends are promoting one version of educational technology over another. The predominant perception of classroom worthy educational technologies is mobile devices that can be used for information retrieval, web access, and content- movie and presentation- generation.  Such devices should be integral to the student experience, but if they remain the main focus of our idea of technology in the classroom, we will not serve our students’ skill development well.

I worry about the reasons we choose to have such technologies in the classroom and the consequences of that choice. Plenty of schools are beholden to a rather underdeveloped relationship with technology that is driven by social currents implying that such technology is inherently valuable. The casual presence of powerful technologies in daily life make many assume they must to be valuable in the classroom, thus most education stakeholders don't think about options besides them.

Strong schools set the agenda in the classrooms; there, pedagogy pulls the cart, with technology only greasing the axles. But in many settings, the presence of technology is by default, so educators have to figure out how the cart driving the horse (to wear out the metaphor!) will deliver their students to an educationally valuable destination. That’s not an empowering situation for anyone. Usually, when such technologies arrive in the classroom, the burden is on the teacher to learn how to utilize them, regardless of whether or not they support what that teacher values. This creates a palpable tension for educators, and it can undermine their ability to deliver their product with conviction

I feel like we are stuck in some awkward technological adolescence, wherein infatuation with  the slickest and freshest technologies is an enormous distraction to our ability to use technology effectively in our schools. A lot of students are going to get shortchanged on their education until we work out our relationship with technology- and who sets the agenda for its usage in the classroom.

In part 2, I will make the case for new ways we could think about utilizing technology in the classroom. We need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the breadths of the term “educational technology.”

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tactnology and Skill Development

I am going to be presenting at the Kentucky Society of Technology Educators (KYSTE) annual conference on March 7th about how technology-based building toys engender important thinking skill development in young people. I am intrigued and encouraged by the possibilities created by the increasing number of products that combine creative construction with a technological component. Each takes advantage of what I refer to as the Lego formula: choice + tactile = endless engagement and updates it with the allure of electrical circuitry. Several incorporate programming, which adds an additional layer of skill development. 

In the weeks leading up to the conference, I will introduce my ideas and profile each product here in the blog.  These entries will become the resources that people who are interested in the products and my ideas can turn to to learn more.

Check out the conference line up here

Here is my presentation description: 

Tactnology: Where hi-tech and children’s need for the tactile meet!
Lets’s examine the process and products that wed the Lego formula  (choice  + tactile = endless engagement) with technology. We will discuss what really happens when kids build by hand, thus what underlies the fundamental appeal of such products, then consider how technology can further refine the intellectual component of this process. Then we will examine some of the venerable “tactnological” products and some of the best new ones out there. Lego’s Robotics, Roominate, littleBits, Squishy Circuits, Linkbots and Makey Makey are some of the products we will consider.
Tim Corkran
Relevance Education

Friday, July 12, 2013

Why kids in the middle grades need a skill-centered curriculum

Our schools simply do not do enough to engender a gratifying sense of independence that empowers young people, and tipping the scales towards a more skill-centered curriculum can change that. A curriculum centered around skill-development stands to make young people attach to their academic setting much more vigorously. If on a daily basis, kids are mastering skills and applying them to produce results, they will find the academic aspect of school as engaging or fulfilling as the social, artistic, and athletic aspects typically are. 

Kids love to master skills, because skills allow them to do things own their own. Now, if you work with kids ages 11-15, you know well that little makes them feel better than independence, and skill mastery is a great source of independence. When kids can do things on their own, they feel good about themselves, they feel empowered. A happy and empowered kid is one who will learn effectively and feel attached to his or her environment.

The shortcoming of a content-centered curriculum, as most middle school core academic classes are, is that it bores kids and alienates them from the potential value of subjects they are studying. Kids in this age group are not very interested in information that is not applicable: they want to know things so that they can do things with the information. A skill-centered curriculum uses the content as a medium for teaching the skills. As a result, kids interaction with the information is positive: it always leads to skill utilization and independent production.

So if we limit our content delivery to what facilitates skill development, and then spend our teaching time helpings kid master and apply skills, we will have kids who love being at school.

Monday, July 1, 2013

littleBits Delivers an Important Skill

Last week at Launch Education and Kids, I saw a really high quality presentation about littleBits. This is a company that has already been well funded and is marketing itself fairly broadly. The founder, Ayah Bdeir, had her company be a sponsor of Launch Education and Kids, and she presented at the opening as an example of an educational technology product that has both a clear educational mission and is experiencing some real success.

littleBits is brilliant. If you have not yet seen this circuit building Lego style activity set- they call it an "open source library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets for prototyping, learning and fun"- you need to check it out. It's attractive, easy to use, and really fun to play around with. The company seeks to help young people understand how circuitry works in the electonics around us. They have a strong commitment to empowering young people with concrete, interactive experiences that will help demystify what is both omnipresent and taken for granted. As kids build the snap together circuits, with pieces that are color coded for function, they can create light, sound, and motion outputs. The tactile element is obviously a great appeal, but the skill delivered here is not necessarily related to that- unless you have a class full of budding electricians.

The value of littleBits for the middle level learner is one of empowerment through demystification. We know how much this age group needs to feel control of their surroundings and how much they crave autonomy; the psychological effect of grasping how everyday objects work is really positive for them.  When circuitry, thus technology, can be explained as something physical, when it can be visualized and controlled on the most basic level, the world of the middle-level learner becomes less controlled by outside forces, less scary. It becomes less the source of disenfranchisement, less the object of self-protecting detachment. Seeing their world this way is a skill they need to master- and it certainly is a skill that middle level learners love to practice.

So my conclusion is that, if you are looking for educational technology that will engage your students on the level of meaningful skill development, littleBits is a winner  And as the company moves forward with their plans for leveled and programmable units, the product will grow even more valuable.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Linkbots are good for kids!

Today at Launch Education and Kids, I saw a presentation about a new modular robot product called Linkbots. They stretch the definition of robot, as each module looks more like a truncated soda can with flanges and a flat spot. Each module is  programmable and connectable and has a built-in rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery. The product is not being developed for the direct consumer, rather for educational settings, so its non-traditional appearance should not have an effect on its appeal. It uses C++ for programming  (with Java script version coming soon) and is highly adaptable.

Linkbots passes the skills test because programming is integrated and trial and error is a big part of the construction process. Middle level learners will love this because of the ability to customize form and function. It's already being delivered to some school settings, and with an imminent second round of funding (their presentation to panel of potential investors was really well received), they should be able to get the price point down to something more accessible to schools.

Barobo gets kids and technology together in an intellectual, experimental, and tactile way. Linkbots is a hearty product that will survive hands-on time with kids and deliver meaningful skill development.