Exceeding Expectations
Apr 30th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Today some of my previous statistics graduate students (all practicing teaching professionals) joined me at my home to pick up posters that they will be presenting at WestConn’s first Instructional Leadership Conference.  As part of their qualitative methods course, the professor had them conduct a brief study.  He suggested that the students make some 8.5×11 sheets on their computer, slap them up on a trifold posterboard and bring it to the conference this weekend. 

Several of the students contacted me and asked for suggestions to make more of a professional presentation.  They felt the expectations were too low.  I couldn’t agree more.  As budding educational researchers, they should learn the high quality techniques that are involved in preparing a poster for a meeting or conference.  This is not exceedingly hard, and with the features in PowerPoint, fairly easy to do, with very professional results.

This reminds me of the AERA conference I recently attended, where my poster seemed to have an edge in professionalism over some of the others.  Look at mine (37) compared to my neighbor’s (38) and make your own judgement without even considering the content.

My poster

My neighbor's poster

My neighbor's poster

The students, like me, did not want their work to lack the professional results that a high-caliber member of the community of practice would produce.  In essence they are on inbound trajectory(Wenger, 1998). 

What I think is important about their (and my) dispositions is their unwillingness to sacrifice quality.  having high quality, in this case, will exceed the expectations of other members of the community of practice.  AND I LOVE IT.  I am realizing that I find exceeding expectations to be a very important part of my professional persona as well as my philosophy for my students.   I want people to say, “Wow, this was done by a <high school student>, <neophyte researcher>, <insert other here>.”  I guess that is because you see incredible growth when that happens, and you bring students more towards the boundary trajectory of becoming active members of the community of practice.

Why can’t expectations be higher?

Situated learning trumping information processing learning theories
Apr 22nd, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

This week during my laboratory periods with my biology students, we are completing a DNA fingerprinting laboratory.  The kit is manufactured by Bio-Rad and provides samples of DNA (crime scene and five subjects), restriction enzymes and materials for electrophoresis separation.  I like this lab, because, although it is a “scenario,” (read what bothers me about scenarios here) it gives students the opportunity to use authentic materials in a hands-on, minds-on, inquiry setting. 

Because the scientific concepts are complex, I often provide some prior direct instruction to situate the student learning.  I have also found that a prelab assignment with some good higher order thinking questions helps prepare the students to appropriately before they come to the laboratory experience.  (I will openly admit that the questions are provided by Bio-Rad as part of the kit – but it’s high quality stuff.  It’s not always necessary for teachers to recreate the wheel, when quality instructional tools already exist.) I am clearly following an information processing theory to teaching and learning.  Kind of ironic, since I always tout the situated cognition learning theory

Well, it turns out that my students were thinking about situated learning.  One told me about how he took the questions, Googled them, and found the online document that contained the questions from Bio-Rad.  He was actually seeking out the answers, but was dismayed not to be able to find them.  A discussion from several students in the immediate area of this student ensued questioning whether that was right or wrong.   They were specifically looking for my opinion and hadn’t really come to any conclusions themselves.

My response?  I thought it was fine.  I told them that I didn’t think that students should be denied access to information, and they should use any resources that they deem necessary to learn.  Of course, I was thinking to myself, that I have a responsibility as a teacher to ensure the work I give to students is meaningful, and that they cannot just type a few key strokes to get an answer, without some thoughtful thinking.  The assignment was demanding, and without the answers online, they retain a high level of rigor.  However, if I use work that allows the trap of the copy-paste-and-plagiarize, I am doing my students a disservice.

I guess I was lucky this time!

Almost AERA time. . .
Apr 11th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
On Monday, I will be heading to San Diego to attend my first American Educational Research AssociationAnnual Meeting.  I have been priviledged to be selected to present my research on problem finding for student research.  I am excited to share the results of my research in a poster presentation.  I recently wrote about the process of constructing the poster, and now it sits in a tube ready to fly to San Deigo. 

I am excited to share my ideas with like-minded people and am hoping to have an experience where I can learn more about strategies to share with others on how to be more accepting of research-based practices in education.

I am regularly amazed that teachers that I work with do not pay any credence whatsoever to research-based instructional practices.  They like to do what “feels good,” or “the way they were taught.”  If we are to have  transformative changes in teaching behavior, teachers have to become, at least, consumers of educational research.  I would dare say that so many practitioners dismiss educational research.  Preservice institutes certainly play a role in this apathy.  However, in service teachers need to be challenged as well. 

Action research as a personnel evaulative tool can potentially begin to reform thinking.  Teachers thoughtfully evaluating their practice is the best tool to introduce the concept of evidence-based practice.  These types of studies don’t have to be magnificent.  They should just ask a meaningful question, have a method to collect data, and draw some conclusions.  However, without the necessary professional development, this won’t effectively happen.  I wonder most how to get buy-in from teachers.

“Like” Real Life
Apr 8th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I often shudder when I hear a teacher exclaim, “We’re going to do <insert activity here>. Its ‘LIKE REAL LIFE’!”  I think some may look at a statement like that and think, but isn’t that what we are supposed to do?  My response is why does everything have to be a simulation.  Something that the teacher preconceives:  a well-known question, with a well-known outcome.  Once again stifling the creativity of our youth. 

I say it should just be real life.  If students are conducting research on topics that they select, based on meaningful research, knowing that there is an authentic audience (and I mean a REAL authentic audience, not some ‘LIKE’ real authentic audience), then we bring more meaning to the work they do.  If they are finding and solving real problems where they really have to interact with members of a community of practice, they learn that their knowledge acquisition must be in conjunction with value-added product generation.  What could be better than cognitive growth both in scientific concepts and authentic interaction.

I reflect on this, because earlier today I was discussing the science research of my students with a visiting educational leader .  He looked at the posters the students had created and was just floored by the quality of their work.  These posters (dimensions 40″x60″) are printed using an HP T1100 wide format printer that my department has (especially for this purpose).  Students design single PowerPoint slides which are formatted with the appropriate dimensions.  They prepare, print, spray mount to foam core, and present these posters at science fairs and symposia.  They are evaluated by practicing engineers and scientists in industry and academia.

Now, at the same time, I am preparing my research for the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in San Diego next week.  I am doing exactly what my students did:  I created a large-scale poster using PowerPoint based on the extended research I conducted over a long period of time.  I spent many intricate hours designing and laying out the introduction, methodology, data, and conclusions.  My students offered me several comments along the way, just as I had offered them while they were preparing for the Connecticut Science Fair.  We were collectively involved in the preparation for presentation of research to an authentic audience. 

I am literally practicing what I preach.  My work becomes a comparison for them and I think we all benefit because it truly is REAL.

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