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Reflection on ASB Unplugged 2013

Photo by Thomas Galvez

Photo by Thomas Galvez

A critical process in being an educator is continuing to learn and develop professionally. This is one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. I attend around two conferences a year and I learn professionally daily through my Personal Learning Network (Twitter and Diigo groups are the top 2 providers of content in my PLN). Recently, I had the great opportunity to attend the ASB Unplugged Impact 2013 conference at the American School of Bombay (ASB) in Mumbai, India from January 13-15, 2013. The theme of the conference was Effecting Change with the Brain in Mind. I was very excited for this conference since it was a synthesis of my two favorite intellectual pursuits: education and psychology. It also had an emphasis on technology and its impacts on the brain, which is another passion of mine.

The conference started with a session of TEDxASB related to the conference theme. Each of the conference presenters (Dr. Adam Gazzaley, Dr. Judy Willis, Dr. Larry Rosen, and Dr. David Sousa) gave a TED talk that summarized their research and what they would be presenting during their sessions the following two days. These brief talks were inspirational in-and-of themselves and helped me and others decide which sessions we would attend. Here are the links to the talks:

The first session I attended was Dr. Rosen’s about Understanding the iGeneration and Generation C and the Way they Think, Socialize, and Learn. Learning and transforming education through technology and understanding both the positive and negative effects of technology in today’s world is a passion of mine, so I was excited for this session. Dr. Rosen started the session by defining the approximate range of years for the current generations, and then noted how generations change much faster now due to technology. The remainder of the session focused on both qualitative and quantitative data related to how and why today’s student’s think, socialize, and learn with technology. You can see the specific details in my session notes. My biggest take away from this session confirmed previous thoughts and beliefs: technology is creating indelible changes in the way we think and learn, and we as educators cannot ignore this fact. We have to transform our teaching practices so that learning is relevant and engaging for our students today. Technology should be an embedded part of that process. At the same time, we have to recognize the problems technology creates and directly teach our students to understand these problems and deal with them in effective and productive ways.

Image by CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr

Image by CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr

The second session I attended was Dr. Willis’ about How Emotion Impacts the Brain; Constructing and Maximizing Memory. Her session was broken into two parts as seen in the title. In the Emotion part, Dr. Willis started by talking about causes of stress for today’s youth. The key stresses she defined were: Peer relationships; test-taking anxiety; physical, clothing, language differences; no personal relevance; frustration due to previous failure and falling behind, and sustained or frequent boredom. These can have varying degrees of negative impacts on students, thus effecting learning and motivation for learning. She stated that animals learn not to expend energy when success is not expected. This is the same in humans: when success is not expected, students “drop out.” She followed this by discussing something that sustains motivation even when there are repeated mistakes and increasing challenge. This is video games! Why does this sustain motivation? Goal buy-in; achievable challenge, and frequent feedback that acknowledges incremental goal progress. If we can harness these same qualities in the classroom along with personally relevant content, better student engagement and success can be achieved. Additional detail about dopamine’s role in this can be seen in my session notes. The second part of her session focused on memory. The main point here was that we perceive based on the patterns of past experiences; thus, we should work to activate prior knowledge in teaching and learning to allow for pattern matching. With this, students will remember more content and skills. Setting this process in personally relevant and engaging contexts for the students makes the memory even stronger.

The third session I attended was Dr. Gazzaley’s presentation about Brain Plasticity across the Lifespan. This was my favorite session, probably because of my fascination and deep interest with neuroscience at the moment. In the first part of session Dr. Gazzaley gave background on brain plasticity. At times during this part, I felt like I was sitting in my IB Psychology class, which was awesome! Brain plasticity is the brain’s ability to modify its function and structure in response to new experiences. Many research studies were shared in this part, especially studies done with brain scanning technologies. Those researchers and research studies can be found in my session notes. The main point here is that brain plasticity is real and unanimously accepted in the scientific community. The brain can learn and change over the span of one’s life. It is not immutable, unchangeable, or hardwired as previously believed. Many factors influence brain plasticity: nutrition, age, intellectual stimulation, enriched environment, disease, stress, genetics, education, physical activity, gender. As educators, we can harness many of these factors to influence the positive growth of our own and our students’ brains.

Photo by Thomas Galvez

Photo by Thomas Galvez

The second part of Dr. Gazzaley’s session focused on video games as plasticity inducers. He stated that the main question that drives research in this area is “how do action video game players compare to non-players on lab-based cognitive tasks?” The research Dr. Gazzaley presented was fascinating. Those researchers and research studies can be found in my session notes. In brief, it has been found and replicated that action video games promote selective attention, perception, and multitasking abilities. They are effective due to: games being fast-paced and unpredictable; engaging; adaptable difficulty; giving real-time feedback- error reports and motivating rewards; providing visual and auditory immersion, and challenging  working memory, attention, processing speed, and notably interference abilities. There are limitations, however, so caution needs to be taken with these findings. There are some methodological limitations of current data like placebo effects (if participants think Tetris is control group, they might not try as hard on test), and unbalanced controls. Some studies found more limited effects of action video games. Addiction can occur, but it’s inconclusive if video games link to violence. The biggest caution is that it’s questioned if these benefits from action video games can transfer to real world activities. So, more research is needed. In a final discussion with the group it was stated that we have to be careful not to lose sustained attention for deep learning. There is very little in the gaming world that promotes sustained attention. We need a balance between the two. Dr. Gazzaley has an idea to develop a game that practices both distributed and sustained attention (i.e. have a part of the game that requires sustained attention in order to unlock the next level or be able to do something the player loves to do within the game). Sustained attention is boring, but we have to help students learn that there is a “break away” point where the activity becomes enjoyable (i.e. running and runner’s high, meditation, reading).

For the final session of the conference, I attended Dr. Rosen’s presentation about Enhancing focus in the age of FB, texting, and other culprits that promote “Continuous Partial Attention”. Like the other sessions, Dr. Rosen used a lot of recent research studies, specifically cognitive psychology studies in this context, to provide the basis for the session. See my session notes for the studies. Some of the key points brought out by the various studies relate to distraction and multitasking. The distractions technologies bring are of real concern. We need to be aware of the effects they bring and we need to educate students about these effects so they can make metacognitive decisions about the impact of their actions. One of the interesting points brought out by research is that the biggest distraction has an internal cause- the thoughts about what another person is doing, what is being said, etc. In regards, to multitasking, it isn’t really multitasking that kids are doing. It’s better referred to as task switching. The cost of this are: attention difficulties; poor decision making; breadth vs. depth of material; information overload; internet addiction; poor sleep habits, and overuse of caffeine. There is evidence that the brain is physically changing because of this. There’s disagreement whether the evolution of the brain in this context will yield more positive, robust brain qualities in this context, but the current research shows it’s problematic.

Overall, this conference confirmed, deepened, and added to my understanding of the various topics presented. It also compounded my belief that there is lot of work still to be done to make changes and transform education today. Some educators say that all teaching is directed toward the brain. I think this conference showed it’s not as simple as that. There are specific strategies and processes educators can take to strengthen learning and make it more engaging. Meaning, relevance, understanding of previous patterns of learning, goal buy-in, achievable challenge, balancing distributed and sustained attention, and understanding both the positive and negative impacts of today’s technology rich world are essential so that the most effective learning environments and processes occur.

Rigor Redefined in IB Psychology

IB Psychology is one of those courses that can be approached in a very traditional manner where the teacher is the sage-on-the-stage and the students are passive receivers of the teacher’s “fountain of knowledge.” To supplement this approach the teacher surely administers exams, assigns essays and research papers, probably does some demonstrations and activities, and facilitates some discussions. This approach has produced students that have a good base knowledge and have a proficient understanding of the subject area, which allows them to do well on the standardized, end-of-course exam. This approach doesn’t sit well enough with me, however. As I say in my educational philosophy, I just don’t endeavor to do things better, I endeavor to do better things. Thus, one of my goals as an IB Psychology teacher is to redefine the rigorous approach so that the students not only have a good base knowledge and have a proficient understanding of the subject’s content in order to do well on the end-of-course exam, but they also come away with the skills and frames of mind needed to be successful in today’s fast paced, constantly changing, and technology rich world.

I started rethinking my teaching approach years back when I started to study and voraciously read blogs, white papers, reports, and books, and have conversations with like-minded colleagues on 21st century learning skills, technology integration, and the transformations needed to make education more relevant. One of the reports I read called Rigor Redefined by Tony Wagner was a big influence to my current teaching approach. After delineating the seven essential skills that matter most for life and success in the 21st century, Wagner gives examples of Advanced Placement classes he visited where he experienced rote and unengaged learning that is mostly teaching to the test. He referred to experiencing classes that are not like this as “rare.”

I think students learn best by doing. This goes for a psychology class, as well. Rather than being passive absorbers and regurgitators of information, I want kids to be active creators of relevant content and research while simultaneously developing the essential skills delineated by Wagner and others. I facilitate this process in more of a guide-on-the-side manner as opposed to the sage-on-the-stage approach mentioned earlier. Cognitively, I base my approach on the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Instead of focusing lessons and assessment on only Remembering and Understanding, which is what you often see in the traditional psychology classroom, I shift these lower levels of the pyramid to formative assessment and personalized learning processes. Students can acquire this information mostly outside of class and I can check their understanding through conversations and other technology-based means. In class, I focus on the top parts of the pyramid (Creating, Evaluating, Analyzing, Applying) within the project-based learning activities and the summative, authentic assessments I facilitate. Fortunately, IB learning outcomes incorporate command terms that directly expect the students to think critically in-line with the top parts of the pyramid (these command terms are: Analyze, Examine Discuss, Evaluate, To What Extent), so with my coaching and guidance, students start practicing these thinking skills from the beginning of the course since they have to. Creating is the only one the IB leaves out, so I give students opportunities to create as often as I can. Lastly, communication, collaboration, global awareness, and digital citizenship are equally emphasized and assessed along with the content elements of the projects and assessments.

Since I’ve been working in a dual role the last four years as both an IB teacher and a technology learning coach, I’ve endeavored to use in my own classes and help other teachers understand how to use technology effectively to transform the learning process. As with any risk-taking situation, there have been both successful and unsuccessful moments. But, the key thing is to make thoughtful attempts and always reflect on the process. We need to model risk-taking so that students see that informed risk-taking is a good thing, and to make mistakes in the process is ok as long as we reflect and work to improve on it. I continue to emphasize this approach with technology in my teaching. One of my professional goals this year is: Continue to design and refine technology-based learning activities in IB Psychology that have students effectively communicating, collaborating, critically thinking, and creating with the required content. Thus, I will continue to work on using technology as a critical tool in redefining the rigorous process in my IB Psychology classes.

In my IB Psychology class, here are some examples of transformed approaches I have taken:

  • Students develop primary psychological research skills beyond the Internal Assessment requirement. When studying qualitative research methodology, I have the Higher Level (HL) students carry out a qualitative research study that is relevant to the school community. Based on a topic I define, they create the research question and work collaboratively to gather the qualitative data (through interviews, observations, or case studies). In the process they are expected to apply the relevant concepts that the IB learning outcomes for this HL topic dictate. And, they actually do an Inductive Content Analysis of their data. This is better than just having the students read and regurgitate about qualitative methodology. The students declared that they understood the concepts better from doing the process. Further to this, when we study the sociocultural level of analysis in the first semester of the second year, I have the students create and design a cross-cultural research study in order to more deeply understand the additional issues cross-cultural researchers need to keep in mind when they design a cross-cultural research study. Again, this creation, application, and analysis process deepens their understanding and makes the learning process more rigorous and engaging in an authentic way.
  • Students reflect upon all major assessments and projects. This meta-cognitive process is essential so they learn about their learning and recognize both their successes and failures and improve on both situations in the future.
  • Through out the course of the two years, I build independent learning skills with the students. They learn what is expected for each of the command terms; they learn how to find reliable and relevant sources, and they learn how to effectively organize their written responses. In the second year, I have them independently research, read, and respond to certain learning outcomes, i.e. there is no direct instruction on those outcomes in class. The students post their responses on the class blog, and I give them feedback in that digital environment. This is especially important for the HL students since they need to cover about 66 learning outcomes over the two years, and there just isn’t enough time to cover all of those directly in class.
  • I build projects that integrate technology in a meaningful way. I have students create videos, podcasts, and photostories. In some instances these are published to add to the knowledge base of the world. The students blog often and use online collaborative tools like Google Docs, Shambles Pad, and Wikispaces. I would have them use social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well, but those are blocked here in China, unfortunately. I also have them do presentations often where they are expected to think about the slide design and the means in which they engage the audience through an effective mix of facts and storytelling. In these types of projects, I expect students to practice ethical use of information and media (audio, images, video) by using Creative Commons licensed media or by creating all the media themselves. These elements are assessed along with the content expected by the learning outcome.
  • Students often collaborate in many contexts to build their understanding of the learning outcomes. They do collaborative processes both in-person and with technology tools like wikis, Google Docs, chat platforms, the class blog, and others. How well they collaborate is usually assessed along with the content about which they are collaborating.
  • Through their developing research and information literacy skills, I frequently have the students choose the content they want to use to respond to the learning outcomes. Many IB Psychology learning outcomes are open-ended, allowing for various concepts and research studies to be used. When they can choose what interests them in responding to some of the outcomes, they are more engaged and more apt to remember the needed content for those outcomes.

Of course, I do administer IB exam styles quizzes and tests under timed conditions two to three times a semester so students practice this skill so they can be as successful as they can be on the end-of-course exam. At the moment, the final scores they earn for IB are still important for their university admission process. But, I don’t approach the course as teaching to the exam. There are more important skills and learning processes the students need to develop for life in the 21st century than being good test takers. There will be more approaches and adaptations of these above processes as I continue my journey to redefine rigor in teaching IB courses. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, as well!

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