Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is a Picture Worth 1,000 Words?

The National Day on Writing was inspiring--so many good reasons to write flowed in the Twitter stream and other locations that day. However much we are inspired to write,  my thoughts have turned not to the power of the pen (or keyboard or Siri) but to the way we present our words.Ideas may lose their appeal or power not because we lack elegance to articulate our ideas but because we founder in our choice of how to present our ideas. We teach our students the power of words, that they can change the world through the ideas they communicate. However, are we doing a good job teaching them how best to communicate an idea? Word processing is the "tech tool" teachers cite most often as their most frequently used technology. The 2nd most cited choice is Powerpoint. Really? So word processing and Powerpoint are the awesome tools we are giving our students to present their thoughts to the world.  From random use of clip art to poor choice of graphs, to "Death by Powerpoint", our students seem bewildered by the overwhelming amount of choice when it comes to visually representing data or ideas and I suspect they are not being guided in their choice either.

Let's first discuss image choice. How many students really know how to select or create the best image? Students often turn to the most expedient or the most frivolous image use. Whether choosing the first image that comes up on a poorly planned Google image search, or throwing in a word cloud because using Wordle is fun to use, our students are not choosing wisely. Are word clouds harmful? Do geographic visualizations serve to dumb down or distort data? Can an ill-conceived graph convey the wrong idea? Maybe. I read a great article by Jacob Harris (New York Times senior software architect) on the Nieman Journalism Lab site. Harris advocates against the use of word clouds as data visualization for stories. He argues that word clouds (as opposed to other types of data visualizations which accompany news stories) are misleading, sloppy and open to too many interpretations, "Don’t confuse signifiers with what they signify." Harris, along with  those who contributed the many comments on his story, prodded me to think about the importance of teachers being knowledgeable about the variety of images and presentation tools available to students. Think how much more powerful a student's communication would be if his or her ideas were accompanied by the right images and presentation format.

Teachers should be able to guide their students as to whether an idea is best communicated through an essay, cartoon, Prezi, Glogster, Powerpoint, Keynote, newspaper, blog, video or any combination of those tools. If we limit the choice of tools to what a teacher is comfortable with, we clip our students' wings. Would you expect a carpenter to show up with only a hammer to renovate your kitchen? Teachers need to equip their students with the knowledge of how to find or create just the right image which means they need to knowledgeable practitioners too. Is that asking too much? Probably. However, I'm betting that mechanics know every tool available to fix a car whether it's a wrench or a computer. I'm confident that a surgeon knows when to use a scalpel as opposed to an x-ray. So why would the teaching profession be any different?

While many teachers complain that they do not have the time to learn more than one tech tool, they do work hard to present their lessons to accommodate many types of learners. Therefore, it should be a no-brainer that we need to transfer that knowledge to our students and teach them that when they communicate ideas through a combination of words and images, they need to choose the right tool to ensure that they are communicating their ideas clearly, transparently, and succinctly. Just as a sitcom is not the right tool for satire, a word cloud (while fun to do) may not be the best tool to visually portray data. Many folks (especially since his passing) have pointed out how wonderful Jobs's presentations were because he understood how to marry the impact of words and pictures to communicate his ideas. If you are asking students to create presentations, how much thought do you give to which tool they use? Should teachers "talk through" the pros and cons of Prezi vs. Glogster. Vs. Powerpoint?  How much time do teachers devote to taking about the importance of choosing the right image? If you are assigning a research project, how much time do you spend on the various types of charts and graphs student scan create and embed in a report? Setting the aesthetics aside, the format by which we communicate and the  images accompanying that information are potent ways to deliver ideas and our students need to understand their impact.

Remember, "a picture is worth a 1,000 words?" What if they are the wrong words? The wrong ideas?

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Power of the Epic Fail

What is the single most important lesson we can teach our students? I know some would argue a "passion for learning", or "the ability to problem solve", or maybe even "to communicate concisely and elegantly an original thought". 


Another thought occurred to me though that above everything else there is one essential item we should teach our students: RESILIENCY. I've always thought it was important but as I get older and more difficult obstacles pop up in life, my resiliency is something I lean on heavily. I know that I will make mistakes but I trust in my ability to rise again. J.K. Rowling talked about the benefits of (epically) failing and resiliency at a Harvard Commencement speech:

"So rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."

According to Resiliency.com, "Resiliency is the ability to spring back from and successfully adapt to adversity." Resiliency has been on my mind, particularly the last two weeks. Seeing the resiliency of the OWS movement is a powerful lesson. Talking my daughter through her fear of failing at a task made me realize that I don't "talk out loud" my thought process when I make mistakes and verbalize the lessons learned enough with my children.  Last week, some critics slammed Tim Cook for his less than dazzling performance at the iPhone 4S event. With hindsight, the presentation by Cook and other Apple executives was masterful. They knew that Steve Jobs, their mentor, close friend, and former boss, was dying. Tough stuff. Yet, they rose to the occasion and certainly the pre-sale iPhone 4S orders have proven that Apple is on the right track. Jobs himself demonstrated resiliency throughout his career,especially when he got fired from Apple:

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods in my life. During the next five years I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world's first computer-animated feature film, "Toy Story," and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. 
Students are so focused on the right answer. They fear failure. Standardized tests that emphasize only one right answer don't help to encourage our students of the worthiness of failure. This generation of "helicopter" parents  (I'm one of them), are famous for practically scooping up their child mid-fall so the child doesn't scrape his knee. We are missing the chance to encourage our children to succeed by not letting them fail. Make a mistake. What's the worse that can happen? Richard Branson is one of the richest men in the world and is known as much for his successes as his failures. "Being unafraid of failure is, I believe, one the most important qualities of a champion."

 There are dozens of examples we can hold up to our students of the importance of failure and resiliency.

However, I believe that students sometimes block out these examples. So perhaps it is up to us to model failure and resiliency. As difficult as it is to take a risk with our students, it is imperative that they see us talk through our failures so that they can better understand the value of resiliency. Without resiliency, failure can never be success.

"I have failed over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed."

So fail. Even epically. Just remember to get up and dust yourself off.

 “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”-Sir Ken Robinson

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Think Different-Steve Jobs & Learning

 Even though I had never met Steve Jobs, I felt devastated when I heard the news of his passing.  Much more so than than the death of JFK Jr., Princess Diana, or Michael Jackson, or any other icon I can think of, Steve Jobs's death seems to strike right at my heart. All night and this morning I've been pondering why this is so. I believe that like many teachers, Jobs inspired us in profound ways that we will not even realize for another generation. From memories of my first Mac, which seemed like pure magic to me, to my current Apple laden life (iPhone, iPad, iPod and my precious MacBook Pro) Steve Jobs has been a strong presence on and off for most of my adult life. He seemed to anticipate what I wanted before I even knew. My first computer lab was cluttered with his Think Different posters. Students would always ask, what's with the Think Different? I would always reply that the posters should be inspiration for you to think differently than you ever have, be uncomfortable, go down another path, think differently. While his influence on design will be felt for some time, more importantly his influence on how we think will be the real game-changer.

These are the top ten lessons that Steve Jobs taught me:

"I'm convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance."

"That's been one of my mantras-focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."

"If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on"

"My model for business is The Beatles: They were four guys that kept each other's negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts."

"We've kept our marriage secret for over a decade."
-- Jobs' answer to Kara Swisher asking about the "greatest misunderstanding" in Jobs' relationship with Bill Gates. (May 2007)

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

"It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

"Picasso had a saying: 'Good artists copy, great artists steal.' We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas...I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, artists, zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world."


"Stay hungry. Stay foolish."


Thank you Steve Jobs. May you rest in peace.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The School Social Media Tug-of-War - Where's the Chi?

 Striking the Right Balance: Student Social Media Policies

Many of us are struggling with striking the right balance between social media/Internet use and restrictions.While teachers want to engage students in multiple mediums, ensuring that they are prepared to communicate in a thoughtful, respectful, and critical manner in all forms of communication, administrators want to safeguard their students (and their school) from any possible harm that may arise from such use. Where to find the social media chi? Fortunately for me, my school is overrun with talented faculty like Brandon B. Recently, Brandon's class used a Visible Thinking routine [Project Zero] to create a Social Media Policy for class use of blogs and Twitter. [We are currently working on a school wide policy.] I love that his students created a policy that not only incorporates safe use of social media, but that their policy also underscores the importance of how something should be communicated (proper grammar, spelling, your own words, appropriate language, etc.).

World History 2011-2012 Social Media Policy

1. I will not give out any information more personal than my first name nor will I post pictures of myself or my classmates.
2. I will not plagiarize; instead I will expand on others' ideas and give credit where it is due.
3. I will use language appropriate for school.
4. I will always respect my fellow students and their writing.
5. I will follow only the Twitter users that Mr. B. has instructed me to follow.
6. I will not communicate with anyone on Twitter that refrains from benefiting my knowledge of history, this course, or current events.
7. I will use constructive/productive/purposeful criticism, supporting any idea, comment, or critique I have with evidence.
8. I will take blogging seriously, posting only comments and ideas that are meaningful and that contribute to the overall conversation.
9. I will take my time when I write, using formal language (not text lingo), and I will try to spell everything correctly.
10. I will not use my blog posts or comments as a chat room. (No IM or texting lingo.)
11. I will not bully others in my blog posts or in my comments.
12.  I will never access another student's Kidblog/Twitter account or make any changes to their site.
13. I will only have one school account for Kidblog/Twitter and the username will consist of first 3 letters of my first name, first 3 letter of my last name, and my class period.
14.  I will provide Mr. B. with my username and password for Kidblog/Twitter and allow him permission to edit any post, tweet, comment, etc.
15. I will personalize my blog and keep my writing authentic, while taking responsibility for anything I add to my blog.
16. I will not provoke other students in my blog posts or comments.
17. I will only post photos which are school appropriate and are either not copyrighted or correctly cited.
18. I will not spam.
19. I will only post comments on posts that I have fully read, rather than just skimmed.
20. I will not reveal anyone else's identity in my comments or posts.
I pledge to abide by the XXXX Honor Code and should any infractions of these rules take place they will lead to consequences as deemed appropriate by the deans office:

I have read and understand the Social Media Policy.
Student Signature
Print name 

Are you there yet?  What would you add?