Wednesday, December 21, 2011

21st Century Skills: Critical Thinking

So my basset hound, Louie, had a problem. Our other dog, Josie, had the bone that he wanted. Josie realized this and began to taunt Louie with the bone by getting nose-to-nose with him and then yanking the bone away at the last minute. Unbeknownst to me, Louie began to create a plan and the following video makes it clear that he was going to exploit her weakness. You need to know, as Louie did, that Josie's favorite thing in the world is her ball. She goes everywhere with it and Louie never...EVER...plays with a ball. So the following is what occurred:

Louie used reasoning and creativity to solve his problem. He even went so far as to wag his tail as to show that he was really enjoying playing with the ball. He also knew that if he kicked the ball a short distance Josie would go after it. When she did, he would make his move and take the bone!

How often do we, as teachers, just simply give the answer to the question without letting the students find the answer? We do this constantly because it is the most efficient method and I can't say that I blame anyone for choosing this route because time is precious in the classroom.

However, think about how we learn as babies. Our learning is mainly through exploration and the use of all of our senses. A baby learns what something is by grabbing it and putting it in their mouth. Toddler's learn through both verbal instructions from parents and through their own investigation. Sometimes they have to bump their head in order to learn to not do a certain action.

When students get into the 21st Century K-12 classroom, we need to continue this style of learning. Teachers need to give information and guidance but we also need to allow the students to explore and experience on their own and using their own means. The 21st Century Student will need to be able to demonstrate the following:

• Utilize the appropriate reasoning skill for the situation.

• Analyze part-to-whole relationships and understand how the parts work together to create the whole.

• Evaluate and interpret information for validity, credibility, and viability.

• Exercise effective self-reflection.

• Ability to ask clarifying questions to help find solutions.

• Solve new problems using established practices as well as through new ones.

Problem solving! When I think about this I always think about the Apollo 13 mission when the C02 levels were climbing and the astronauts needed to make a square filter fit into a round hole using the materials on board:

Now these guys were able to do this because they spent most of their lives in a lab where experimentation, cause-effect relationships, and inductive and deductive reasoning is the norm. How can we get this into an English class? How can we get this into a Social Studies class? How can we incorporate this into all curricular areas?

To begin with, we need to create an environment where "failure" is not an end, but an opportunity. We need to encourage kids to take chances. It is not always about "the right answer" but rather how we react to the "wrong" ones. Further, we need to break the mold of the teacher being the only source of information and answers. When our dads used to say "look it up" when we asked a question, they had the right idea. We have gotten away from that. Finally, allow kids to be creative (a little foreshadowing here...) in how they demonstrate their knowledge. Give them a problem to solve and allow them to solve it how they choose. Not everything needs to be summed up in a paper or PowerPoint presentation.

I hate cliches (yet I use one as the title of this blog...ironic) but the idea of the teacher moving from "the sage on the stage to the guide on the side" is applicable. We need to teach kids how to think for themselves and not wait for someone else to give them the answer.

Have a happy day!

Monday, December 19, 2011

21st Century Skills: Collaboration

Collaboration is not a new concept in the workforce. People work in teams in every profession yet most of the work done in schools is focused on individual productivity. And while that is an important skill, employers have been pointing out that we need to do more in education to produce an individual who can be self-sufficient but who can also work as part of a team. And bare in mind that the team might never meet in the same country, let alone in the same room.

In the 21st Century, we need students to be able to:

• Work effectively and efficiently with diverse teams on a common goal.

• Be flexible and willing to compromise

• Share responsibility for collaborative work and respect others' work in the project.

I spent 15 years as a classroom teacher and I know the immediate "red flag" that pops up when we start talking about "group work" is the concern of one person shouldering all of the responsibility and doing all the work. This is a real and reasonable concern. Technology can help facilitate collaboration and lessen this concern more than ever before. Web 2.0 applications are being developed to specifically meet collaborative needs, and within most of these applications is the ability to see a revision history. This allows the teacher to see who did what parts of the final product. This isn't "a silver bullet" (as the blog title says) in that you can't be 100% certain that a student didn't just login and have his older brother do the work. We can't guarantee that with any homework we assign, however.

So what technology is out there to help facilitate collaboration? Here is a short, yet powerful, list:

Technology Tools To Support Collaboration

Google Apps - Google is synonymous with collaboration. Everything one can create in Google Apps (documents, spreadsheets, presentation, drawings, forms, etc.) were meant to be shared and collaborated on easily.

Prezi - An engaging presentation tool that makes PowerPoint look archaic. Multiple users can work on the same "prezi."

Skype - Video communication where many classes have begun to share and work together.

Evernote - Online note-taking application that allows one to share notes.

• Wikis  - These can be created in many applications. I use either Google Docs or Wikispaces

Wall Wisher  - online "Sticky Note" application great for brainstorming.

Lino  - online "Sticky Note" application great for brainstorming.

Instructional Strategies To Support Collaboration

• Cooperative Learning
• Jigsawing
• Discussion Boards
• Partners: Think/Pair/Share, Tell/ReTell

Remember, we need not replace the individual work with group work, but find places within the curriculum to utilize collaboration. Don't reinvent the wheel...find existing projects and modify them slightly to be more collaborative. It is easier than you might think!

Have a happy day!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

21st Century Skills: Communication

The four "Cs" in 21st Century Learning are Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. This entry will discuss what the 21st Century Learner must be able to demonstrate with regards to communication and will provide technological and instructional tools to aid in that preparation.

Students demonstrate effective communication in a variety of modes, contexts, forms, and environments.

The ability to communicate effectively is not a new idea for the 21st Century as it is a life skill that has been around since the beginning of time. What has changed, however, is the fact that there are many more modes, contexts, forms, and environments that a person will have to deal with. We now communicate face-to-face, on conference calls, via email, through video conferencing, by text messaging, and in written form. We have to be able to interact with the individual, small groups, large groups, and online communities, all of which have much different dynamics and all of which require a different skill-set. As educators, we must deviate from the one-way communication and differentiate our instruction to meet these needed skills.

What does your classroom look like? How many different modes of communication do they use and how many different audiences do they encounter?

Students can communicate in order to inform, instruct, motivate, and persuade.

The 21st Century Learner will need to be able to communicate in order to inform, instruct, motivate, and persuade. Again, this is nothing new, but how they do this in the digital age adds an element of complexity. Students should be able use verbal, written and digital forms to perform these skills. It is commonplace to have students write papers to instruct, motivate, inform, or persuade, but how often do we have them create a website to do this? How often do we have them blog? How often do we have them create instructional videos? How often are our students involved in online discussion boards?

Please do not misunderstand me as I am not advocating to do away with writing assignments. I'm simply saying that, in the 21st Century, we will need to balance the scales.

The student is an effective listener who can decipher meanings, values, attitudes, and intentions.

Communication is a two-way street. One talks and one least we hope. It is much easier to decipher meaning, value, attitudes, and intentions from one's voice than their writing. Sarcasm and satire don't always translate to the written word as well as we would like and it is much harder to provide instant clarification. In the 21st Century, with online classes, webinars, podcasts, and social media, it is important that we are adequately training our students how to listen and decipher in these various arenas. The learner needs to be able to look at the context and environment of the information and make judgements as to its validity and reliability. Further, to listen to a podcast, participate in an online discussion forum, or take part in a webinar requires a different discipline than a face-to-face interaction, and our students will be faced with more and more of these as they continue in their education. What are we doing to prepare them?

Again, do not think I am advocating eliminating face-to-face communication. I am not! It is so vital! As I said before, we simply need to balance the scales.

Students can use multiple technologies to communicate and know the appropriate time for each.

Finding the right tool for the task is so important. I used to think I could fix anything with a screwdriver and a hammer, so my home-improvement skills had to go through some improvements in order for me to be truly effective. There are so many communication tools available to us and we tend to use the easiest rather than the most appropriate; students need to know who their audience is and make a judgment as to  what tool to use and how to use it. Is it appropriate to email a potential employer? When should one use Skype? Should proper punctuation be used for all audiences? Can students get their point across in 140 characters? These are only a few questions that need to be addressed when using these tools. The bottom line, however, is that students need to be able to communicate effectively with each piece of technology.

Technology Tools To Facilitate Communication
• Email
• Skype
• Texting
• Instant Messaging (Chat)
• Twitter
• Facebook
• Blogging
• Google Apps

Instructional Strategies to facilitate communication
• Cooperative Learning
• Interviews (both in learning and assessment)
• Jigsawing
• Discussion Boards
• Partners: Think/Pair/Share, Tell/ReTell
• Think/Ink/Link: Students think about their response, write their response, and then share their response with someone else.
• Power Sentences: Students respond with one well-written sentence.
• Lit Circles/Book Clubs: Small group book discussions.

Have a happy day!

Monday, November 28, 2011

21st Century Skills: An Overview

Madeline Hunter talked about "Three Bends and You're Out" when checking for understanding. The idea is that if you have three encounters of confusion to a given concept or question, then it is time to re-teach.

I've encountered 3 bends.

In the last week, I have had three teachers that I work with ask if our district is still promoting and expecting 21st Century Learning. Their point, and it is well taken, is that the subject was brought up a year ago and then really never spoken about since. They were told that students are learning in different ways now and that instruction needs to change with it, and then they were left without adequate professional development and support. This is totally understandable, and it ends now.

I will be utilizing this blog to assist the teachers I work with, but hopefully more will benefit as well. I will explore the "Cs" (the number of Cs keeps's kind of annoying) and discuss how each can be implemented without much disruption to the teacher.

So let's begin with an overview. I will be referencing two of my favorite resources for 21st Century Learning: The 21st Century Fluency Project and The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

The Four Cs

In the book 21st Century Skills: Learning For Life In Our Times, by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, the authors point out the following critical learning and innovation skills:

Communication: Students should be able to convey information in a variety of forms, contexts, and environments and they should be able to listen in the same manners. They should be able to communicate for multiple purposes and know the appropriate mode for each. Hmm...I like how "listening" is involved in this idea of communication.

Collaboration: Students should be able to work productively and respectfully with diverse groups, and to show flexibility when trying to complete a common objective. They should do their fair share and respect the roles and work of others within their team.

Creativity & Innovation: Students should be able to use multiple techniques to come up with new ideas. They should be able to analyze and refine their ideas, and those of others, to get the best result.

Critical Thinking & Problem Solving: Students should be able to break the whole product into its parts and understand how they work together. They should be able to use different and appropriate reasoning skills in order to make decisions and judgements. Finally, students need to be able to find solutions to problems through quality questioning, time-tested solutions, and new ideas.

Wrapped around these 4 Cs is the goal of incorporating the students' digital lifestyles into our curriculum to help attain these skills. 

Notice that I said "help" not "solely."

21st Century Fluencies

The 21st Century Fluency Project addresses the same issues from a different point of view. They assert that it is not enough for a student to just be taught these skills, but they should be fluent in them in order to become a quality Digital Citizen. This idea of fluency is true for any discipline. If we are fluent in something, that means it has become part of us and it is intuitive.

The project states the following as critical 21st Century Fluencies:

Information Fluency

• Media Fluency

• Creativity Fluency

• Collaboration Fluency

• Solution Fluency

I did not provide ellaboration on the fluencies because they really do state many of the same ideas of The Four Cs. In future posts, however, we will look at them in more depth. Until then, please visit The Fluency Project at

So I leave you with a question before we dive into the individual components: How do you currently address these skills/fluencies within your curriculum and classroom activities?

Have a happy day!

Monday, November 21, 2011


Questions, while very important, can kill the flow of a presentation. One question can often cause an avalanche of many and cause confusion and loss of engagement.  On the other hand, the audience, whether child or adult, needs time to process what they are being given. Inquiry is essential to learning.

How do you reconcile both?

Conventions, in recent years, have taken to setting up "back-channels" through Twitter where participants can comment or ask questions without disrupting the presenter. Often times, other participants will be the source of the answer or clarification...or deeper inquiry. This is certainly a good example of 21st Century Learning. And while I was really excited to see this and anxious to implement it in my school, my brain quickly brought me down to the reality where social networking is met with great skepticism and caution.

Understandably so. We do need to protect our kids.

Put the social phobia of social networking aside (my district supported Twitter use) and look at how Twitter operates: Hashtags and Mentions, and Tweets...Oh My! It can get confusing. I have offered Twitter training and I am a Twitter-atic myself (I have three accounts...I'm getting help for it), but it seemed to participants of my trainings to be a bit more of a hassle than they wanted.

What to do?

One morning, as I was checking my email (what else does one do in the morning?) and I had a message from one of the other Instructional Coaches in our district. Julie had heard about a cool Web 2.0 tool:


GoSoapBox is a tool that allows participants to stay engaged in a presentation, through a variety of means, using a mobile device connected to the Internet. Here is a short list:

1. Ask Questions: Students can post a question at any time to the SoapBox. Since all questions are anonymous, students can feel more comfortable in using their voice. How many of us have not asked a question because you didn't want to be the only one with that question? Safety is one of our basic needs.

2. Answer Questions: The teacher isn't the only one who can answer questions. Participants can offer answers and clarifications to any posted question at any time. Since the SoapBox is online, it is accessible 24/7.

3. Confusion Barometer. This is really cool because it is so simple. At any time during the presentation, students can click a button saying "I Am Getting It" or "I'm Confused" so that the teacher will know how the class is feeling about the information. They will know if they can move on, re-teach, or jump-ship.

4. Vote on Questions. Students can vote on questions and the ones with the most votes will move up the queue. This will tell the teacher what the most pressing item is at the time.

5. Poll. Teachers can create polls to check for understanding throughout the lecture.

Here is a video from the website. I'm sure it will explain better than me:

Good Points

• It's anonymous. Kids often don't get involved because they don't feel safe.

• No student account is needed. The teacher just gives an entrance code.

• It's a closed environment. Creepers stay out! No code, no entrance.

• It's simple and intuitive.

• It's accessible on any device with an internet connection. I tried it on my former Blackberry with success...and that is saying something.


• It's anonymous so there is no accountability. I think it is important for people to own their words.

• It's a closed environment. The power of Twitter is that you can collaborate globally and your insight might benefit someone else a half a world away.

• It's simple and limited. I'm sure there are things I will wish it could do. However, they are rolling out updates as we speak.

It isn't a silver bullet, but I have had some teachers very excited about it. The ones who were a bit overwhelmed by Twitter were pumped about GoSoapBox. The best review I had was an unsolicited one from a student. I was talking to another teacher about GoSoapBox and this student overheard us and said "We used that the other day in English! It was awesome!" 

Again, not a silver bullet, but it does provide teachers and students with a simple way of creating an interactive environment during a presentation. Yes, a good teacher can get the students engaged and get them what they need without the technology, but using GoSoapBox also teaches how to use technology properly, which is another necessity of 21st Century Learning.

Have a happy day!

Monday, November 14, 2011

iPads & Wikispaces...A Pretty Good Match!

I am a Google Certified Teacher (GTAWA '11) and there has been a lot of discussion on the GCT forum regarding iPads. iPads are all the craze in education, as you certainly well know.

Last year, my district was awarded a grant that allowed us to purchase 4 iPad labs (30 each), one lab for each core area. We also implemented a hybrid class where English students were each issued an iPad and met in class only about 50-60% of the time. This was to test both flexible scheduling and a 1:1 environment. This year, both middle schools in my district purchased iPads for the Science departments rather than textbooks, another hybrid class is in session at the high school, and we have another high school iPad lab coming at the end of this month.

So, iPads have been on my mind...

The problem is this: The iPad was not made for education. Both teachers and Apple realized, after the fact, that it could be a valuable tool, and that it is not without its limitations. It's not a square peg/round hole situation...more like an octagon peg/round hole. You can make it fit with minimal banging, but bang you must. So we are forced to utilize the 21st Century skills of critical thinking (problem solving) and creativity to make it work.

Here is my advice: Don't rely solely on apps. Mix it up with Web 2.0 tools!

The one I have found very successful with a 6th Grade Science teacher is our old friend Wikispaces.

The WIKI provides an interactive place where the teacher can list the agenda, media, web-links, and the students can access them during the lesson. By using the WIKI, you can eliminate the time-killers that occur with misspellings of URLs (web addresses), add focus to normally misguided searches, and save paper since there is no need for handouts. Everything is on the WIKI and accessible 24-7! These reasons, along with all of the various widgets that can be added to the WIKI, make Wikispaces a pretty good tool!

You can also take it a step further and have a separate WIKI page where students can ask and answer questions or reflect on the information they are receiving.
What I don't like is that video embedding is clunky. You can't have too big of a file when uploading so you have to do pre-posting editing. There are some video widgets, but in the land of school filters and flash, those options come up short. I may be on to a remedy, however. I will let you know what I find out :)
I know you can do similar things with other learning management systems, but not every school has one. We use Moodle and that Science teacher I spoke of before uses Moodle quite a bit. Again, the WIKI brings focus where as Moodle can resemble a warehouse, and collaboration is much easier with a WIKI.
Kids want to use the iPads when they are in the room, so let them! Don't save it to do research or for a later activity; make it integral to the learning of the day! Keep them active, engaged, and focused!

It's not a silver bullet, but it's got some punch!

Have a happy day!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Coming Home...

The name of the blog is "In Search of the Silver Bullet" and it is meant to be a pun. In my opinion, there are no "silver bullets" in education, but there are some that will maim the wearwolf...or at least really tick him off!

I have been looking for a good place to blog for a while.

I started with Blogger, tried our School Fusion site, made my way to Edublogs, and now the Prodigal Son has returned. I just like Blogger. It's easy to use, there are no ads, and it is familiar.

So I will set up shop here for a while. It's no silver bullet, but it works pretty well.

So I will talk about educational techniques, technology, and philosophies that I come across and deal with in my discussions and interactions with teachers, friends, family, and colleagues. Again, there won't always be a conclusion or an answer...this is an ongoing journey!

Have a happy day!