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.”