GTA Innovative Ideas
Jun 5th, 2014 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I am attending the Google Teacher Academy in Atlanta later this month.  GTA has asked that if we have an innovative idea, we apply to present.  Here is my submission

  • Google Spreadsheets for real-time collaborative data collection.

When conducting experiments in a science environment there is often a great deal of experimental error associated with student data collection. This can lead to inappropriate conclusions or misunderstanding of science concepts or phenomena. One of the easy ways to remediate this is by collecting class data:  outlier data is averaged and balanced and students use more meaningful mathematical processes for analysis.  In the way-way past, this was done on the board.  We’d make a data table and students would fill in, then copy.  Once computers were more readily available, we would use a spreadsheet at a single station: students would come to the station, one group at a time and input their data.  We would then have one sheet that could be posted to the class website.  This process was still cumbersome.  With the advent of the Google Spreadsheet, it’s a totally different ball game.  Students can work simultaneously to input data and real-time progress monitoring can take place.  There are some key strategies to make it work effectively that I will discuss.

Practical Stats, MediaWiki, and SPAM!
Sep 8th, 2013 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

This semester, I am teaching a graduate class in quantitative and qualitative methods.   As these topics are often challenging and sometimes bring out the “math phobic” in teacher-practitioner/students, I think it is very important to create learning experiences that allow the student to construct knowledge and be actively engaged (hands-on/minds-on) in the process.  To that end, I am attempting to utilize student-centered practices and limit teacher-directed instruction.

As part of the process, I am leveraging blended learning strategies.

  • Utilizing a Learning Management System (Moodle) for course resources.
  • Using this blog for my reflexivity and student feedback
  • Creating an online repository (student created) resource for domain-specific knowledge using MediaWiki

MediaWiki is the online software platform that drives WikiPedia. It has a user-friendly interface, is attractive and (purportedly) allows the instructor to focus on the content, not the platform.  However, since MediaWiki is used for WikiPedia, I have discovered that it is subject to major hacking and spamming.  I had a similar problem in the past, which required me to take down the site, and I found over the past week, the same problem reemerging.

Prior to me even populating the site with the previous data, I found that there were over 245 unlinked pages created.  Stuff about your dog’s ears, the latest stocks to buy, online gaming in China, and quite a bit of Arabic typology.  I started manually deleting these pages, which was quite tedious, and then went into the back end to find out that there were now over 12,000 users on the wiki and the front page had been “viewed” over 36,000 times.  Clearly an act of sabotage!  Either that or my “Practical Stats” popularity has become world renowned in just a few days.

Acts of Problem Solving.  Not knowing what to do, I first decided that I needed to turn off the ability for the wiki to create new pages.  I found a tutorial, access the Local php file and edited.  No more new pages . . . (Of course, now I can’t create new pages either, so this is not a long-term solution).  Some students register in the meantime.  More thinking, several days – I better turn off the ability to log on to the system and create a new account – more tutorials, local php edited again.  Now we’re pretty much shut down.  But what about all these users?  “They” (the bot-generated addresses) can potentially get back in.   A guide page suggests accessing the MySQL database via cPanel, use phpMyAdmin and find the code lines and delete them.  What does that mean?

A bit of trial and error, and I find the code and have access to 30 lines of entries (users) at a time.  I start deleting – this is going to take hours.  I look at the code above that is calling the data and decide to edit it.  How about showing 100 instead of 30.  Try that, seems to work. Let’s move faster, try “all.”  Ut-oh I’ve generated an error in the database.  A bit of haggling and reconfiguring and fffewww, problem solved.  I find that I can call 1,000 lines of data, then 2,000, and finally 5,000 at a time.   Eventually everyone is OUT.  If you are a student reading this here, your account has been deleted too.

I also deleted the bogus pages too.  Now I have to get back to populating the data and figuring out how to set up accounts.  Warning to all:  if you are installing MediaWiki, PRESET the safety protocols.

Considering purpose in instructional design
Sep 9th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Dan Meyerrecently wrote on his blog dy/dan:

“The best learning begins with a good worksheet.”

September 6th, 2010 by Dan Meyer

I wrote that. In all sincerity. On June 8, 2004. In an essay for my credentialing school entitled — of all things — “How Students Learn Math.”

This gobsmacked, gross-feeling moment is what I get for digitally cataloging every essay, handout, and lesson I have written since high school.

I am grateful, I suppose, that it only took me six years to go from “the best learning begins with a good worksheet” to the kind of instructional design that — for whatever good it does my students — has me excited to wake up in the morning, has me constantly double-checking my front pocket for a camera, has me excited to walk around and encounter math in my daily life. I’m grateful because I’m positive there exists another timeline, equally plausible to this one, where I’m still that enthusiastic about worksheets after six years, or ten years. Or an entire career. I hear that happens.

Although I think he doesn’t clearly articulate what is “best,” or  ‘better,” I internally find that the major concept is that what is key to good instruction is generating compelling and engaging problems, and working through them in a hands-on, minds-on way.

What stands out for me is that good instruction is NOT about the stuff – the worksheets, the PowerPoint, the lab book, the Internet resources.  It’s about the meaningful interactions we have with students that help them positively grow in knowledge, skills, and disposition. 

Although teaching and learning has best practices that are research-based, there is no question that design and execution of meaningful, well-articulated instruction has an artistic component – one that demands we build quality relationships with students.  After all, we may teach biology, chemistry, or research, but ultimately we are teachers of  students.

Asking questions of nature
Sep 21st, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
from the town of Stratford

from the town of Stratford

I often think back to Ralph Yulo’s important statement “Put your questions to nature,” when I engage students in field experiences. Last Thursday, I took my graduate science methods students to Great Meadows Marsh in Stratford. This has long been a favorite site for me because it is such a powerful example of the beauty and grandeur of nature and the impact of human activity.

Great Meadows sits on Long Island Sound to the south (Long Beach) and is surrounded by the Sikorsky Airport, Bridgeport to the west, and Lordship to the east. The drive into the area takes you right through the middle of the marsh, and you immediately gain a sense of the vastness of the area in comparison to the extensive development that surrounds it.

What I like best about the marsh is the enormity of the topics that can be discussed. I bring several activities for students to complete including:

  • water chemistry (dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, salinity, etc.)
  • bait fishing (using small minnow traps)
  • finding interesting things.

I’ve described a meaningful marsh experience in a paper written for the Connecticut Journal of Science Education here.

What I always find to be the most powerful part of the experience, however, is the discussions that ensue.  I love to talk about edible marsh plants and often offer a sample of rose hip jelly, a taste of beach rose flowers or glasswort.  Jumping on an area of marsh always provides a powerful example of how absorbent and sponge-like the area is.  And the cautious eye of the student (or me) can often finding interesting science concepts embedded in the sand or the mud.

I think the real power in a successful trip stems from creating an environment that is conducive to questioning.  That’s where real inquiry IS!  I can provide structured activities for the students, but I think the real learning comes from their enthusiasm and excitement from wanting to learn something new about the world.  Those questions (both from them and me) are the intangibles of good teaching and learning. 

In essence, what’s not planned is as important as what IS planned. Sure there’s a bit of finese and experience required, but I think the end results are so powerful.

Describing a continuum for inquiry
Sep 8th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
from philipmartin.info

from philipmartin.info

I began teaching a new graduate class last Thursday and have been remiss to post about the experience.  I will be using this blog as a reflective medium after class, open to my students, so we can communicate about teaching and learning.  I continue to consider this blog an important Web 2.0 tool to allow asnchronous discussion, discourse, and learning to take place.

I spent time talking about my view of the so-called “scientific method,” a philosophy, I feel is riddled with fallacies about the way science is actually done.  Below is a sample that I have written regarding it and applications in the science classroom in terms of problem finding.  I think it illustrates my disdain:

An underlying problem with the Osborne-Parnes and Firestien and Treffinger creative problem solving models is the assumed linearity. Although Firestien and Treffinger do not support linearity of their model, it has previously been presented that way, and the flexibility of the model is therefore often obscured in classroom application. In fact only recently has an alternative more open model been presented (Treffinger, Isaksen, & Dorval, 2005). Similar to the so-called scientific method taught irresponsibly in many science classrooms, these models purport a starting and endpoint with a clear step-by-step progression. However, the idiosyncratic nature of science and creativity suggest that such a methodology might only serve the misplaced pedagogical needs of a teacher, and not be truly representative of the actual asynchronous routes that individuals traverse during the problem finding process.

I think, as thoughtful educators we need to consider entry points to learning and how we can develop many aspects of student strategies to (a) problem finding (i.e., creative thinking) and (b) problem solving (i.e., logical/analytical thinking).  When we are more open to varied and diverse thinking strategies, we provide our students with better learning opportunities.

Research indicates that problem finding elicits negative responses from students
Jul 28th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
from: www.bath.ac.uk

from: www.bath.ac.uk

My good friend and colleague, Krista Ritchie, recently defended her dissertation at McGill University.  I was able to attend via distance using Skype.  During her defense, I had the opportunty to hear about her research on problem finding.  She conducted her study longitudinally, observing students over the course of a year from various Connecticut high school science sites.  Each site she studied had students in a “traditional” course (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics) and an applied science research course. Both the traditional and research courses were taught by the same teacher at each site.

As she was presenting her data, one thing stood out to me as a practitioner.  She discussed the negative responses often associated with problem finding: anxiety, nervousness, fear.  These responses, she discussed, were often not found in the traditional science education classes, yet were prevalent in the applied research class.  This immediately got me thinking.

Of course, the proximate interpretation is for an applied science teacher to know that there is anxiety assocaited with the problem finding phase of research, and he or she should do whatever is in his or her power to support the students.  Yet, I wonder – what is the necessity of the anxiety to push the student forward to facing and conquering the challenges associated with creative problem finding?

For more of a holistic view of the educational enterprise, I am thinking more about the place of problem finding within educational structures.  While I am an advocate of problem finding, I am not so Pollyanna as to realize that creative behaviors like problem finding are often stifled and supressed in education.  As much as teachers say they want their students to be creative producers – so many really don’t.  I can hear the voices now . . . “Just do what I say.”    Or from the students, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”  There is TOO much culture of lock-step-do-as-the-teacher-says-and-don’t-push-the-creative-envelope culture prevalent in education.  I don’t even claim this to be a one-way street.  Teachers and students just want to do as told:  solve/teach well-known questions that have well-known answers.  I am often disgruntled about how few teachers and students are willing to take a risk and work with ill-defined problems.  I think that’s where really powerful learning takes place. My challenge as an instructional leader is to bring more students, parents, teachers, administrators – all the constituents – to this place.

A place where we transcend the logical and analytical processes of problem solving and challenge students to engage in creative problem finding behaviors.    And I’m not anxious about saying that one bit!

Metacongitive students
Jul 23rd, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

nav_logo_gla2My continued adventures with the Green Light Academy continue to exceed my expectations.  Tomorrow will be my last day before heading to Brazil to join my family on vacation.  Last night I was working on the program evaluation for submission for presentation at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in Denver, CO for next April. 

I was analyzing some of the qualitative comments written by the students, and feel obligated to document them here.  They are demonstrating that learning through a guided inquiry approach has very wonderful rewards:

Student #1

We actually got to implement our ideas and be creative during the lab, too.  The research and the presentations which help our public speaking skills were nice things to do.  I think being able to successfully communicate is just as important as taking in information.

Student #2

At first I thought it was really hard to figure things out, because we didn’t get a lot of information.  But now I realize that I can figure things out myself and it really isn’t as hard as it initially seems if you just think about it and work things out.

Student #3

Another thing I like about this academy are the projects.  Even thought they were challenging, they were challenging only in the beginning. I loved going through the journey, of going through the clueless ideas, and then it turns to being so easy.

Thanks for validating me!

Independent learning
May 28th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
from: www.rwd.com

from: www.rwd.com

I’ve been working on several projects lately considering autonomy of learning whether it be for students or adults.  Specifically, I am (a) working with the High Ability Inquiry Research group at McGill University trying to define the term inquiry literacy, (b) working with some of my Ed.D. colleagues from Western Connecticut State Univ on several independent publications from our dissertations, (c) preparing professional development programming for Oxford, (d) developing a Moodle site for a blended learning course I teach and (d) working with my applied research students on their continued work.  These activities have me continually thinking about being a self-directed, self-effective, life-long learner. 

I was recenlty invited to view a fantastic wiki, written by my colleage, Donna Baratta, Library Media Specialist from Mildred E. Strang Middle School in Yorktown, NY.   Although I believe her wiki is currently private, it includes a wonderful explanation of models for professional development:

Five Models of Staff Development by Sparks and Loucks-Horsley may be used to differentiate instruction in order to meet the needs of teachers based on years of experience, level of technology use and/or mastery, and professional goals in conjunction with district initiatives, NYSED Standards and more. (This information also appears under the heading of Models and Activities on the Models page.)  Differentiation in regard to technology PD is particularly significant, as learners may vary from reluctant users to confident users of technology.  PD must be designed to meet the needs of all learners participating in the PD experience.

Five Models of Staff Development by Sparks and Loucks-Horsley

 1.  Individually Guided Staff Development

     A process though which teachers plan and implement their own activities to promote their own learning

 2. Observation/Assessment

     This model provides objective data and feedback regarding classroom performance to produce growth or identify areas for growth

 3.  Involvement in a Development/Improvement Process

     Teachers engage in curriculum development, program design or a school improvement process

 4.  Training

     Individual or group instruction that involves teachers in the acquisition of knowledge

 5.  Inquiry

     Teachers identify an area of instructional interest, collect data, and make changes in their instruction based on an interpretation of those data

(Sparks & Loucks-Horsley, 1989, p. 41)

 Further Reading:

Differentiation: Lessons from Master Teachers  

Recommended Reading: (Not available from ERIC in time for this posting)

Sparks, Dennis. Journal of Staff Development, Fall2005, Vol. 26 Issue 4, p4-4, 2/3p; (AN 20217427) 
Gregory, Gayle H.. 2003 132 pp. (ED476461)

I really like the progression presented, allowing for a continuum of growth as expertise level increases.  We certainly should be aiming for teachers to be engaged in independent action research as part of professional growth, evaluation, and supervision.  I am convinced that this change process of teacher as researcher andpractitioneris the one of the necessary steps to allow for systemic increases in student achievement.  Best practices will continue to develop out of an evidence-based profession, not one based on anecdotal, feel-good, been-doin’-it-fer-years strategy.

I think this might have applications beyond the professional growth model, as we think about how to develop 21st-century skills in all learners, both educators and our students.

Oct 14th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Disclaimer: I am generally very pleased with the education my daughter is receiving at her elementary school. She comes home excited about learning, and I can see her growth in reading and especially writing. She is adept at finding patterns in numbers and we often “play games” to reinforce her math skills. This “rant” is an attempt for me to evaluate my own practices when assigning homework.

My 1st grade daughter comes home on Thursdays with a homework packet, which is to be done over the course of the week. The paper requests that for management purposes, the papers not be returned until the following Thursday. The assignments have caught my attention, but unfortunately, in a negative way.

I was quick to notice that the top portion of the paper has the date the assignment is given and it is followed by the date it is due. Usually the day (Thursday) and the month is typed in, but the numerical date always seems to be handwritten.

I inquisitively wonder how many years these papers have been recycled. I was particularly aggravated last week, when one of the “handwriting assignments” wasn’t even copied correctly – the children couldn’t even see the full word.

The assignments are uniform across all 8 sections of first grade – our neighbor’s child, in a different class, also comes home with the same work. There is little to no differentiation on the pages, and I find many of the assignments to be busy work. I work with my child diligently, but I really see very little learning taking place, besides the responsibility of a parent to work with a child to complete this work. Perhaps skills are being developed, but I see very little attention being paid to higher-order thinking. In fact, the one time I see a potential higher-order thinking assignment, it’s assigned to ME!

As part of our fire safety program, please create a simple map of your home showing at least two fire escape routes from your child’s bedroom as explained in the packet.

My child’s? I recognize this is most likely an error on the part of the original writer, and that my daughter is the one that is supposed to complete the assignment, but it just illustrates to me the lack of care that goes into the preparation of these documents.

As many know, I am a strong advocate for 21st-century skills. To me, they are just as relevant in elementary school as they are in high school. If we are preparing our students for the challenges and demands of a 21st-century society, I think we are obligated to request meaningful work that challenges them (as developmentally appropriate), but moreover asks them to use those skills that are so critical: critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, effective written and oral communication, creativity, and the likes.

I think it just reminds me of the importance of relevance when we give students work to complete outside of class. I need to be mindful that an assignment should be a learning experience, and challenge my students to make connections with previous knowledge, build skills, and certainly use higher-order thinking. If we are not promoting thinking and acquisition or refinement of knowledge, we are not valuing the time our students are spending doing work outside of class.  Meaningful work can take a long time to complete – that’s acceptable, because learning is taking place.  What I must try to avoid are assignments that don’t have meaning, and don’t stretch students to learn.

Equally important is to provide feedback to students, even when the work is good.   We always talk in education how there’s room for improvement, and our students need similar feedback.

I hope I haven’t insulted too many people.  Moreover, I hope I assign homework that follows my model.

Concepts versus facts
Oct 6th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I taught a statistics class last Wednesday evening on correlation, and left feeling very depressed. I could see the level of frustration in some students’ eyes. They were working extremely hard, focusing, and were struggling immensely. These are no ordinary students: they are clearly some of the top educators in the region, all pursing a doctorate in instructional leadership.

I had lost some students along the way, and I my reflection on the process leads me to believe that I didn’t stress the “big idea,” strong enough. What may have happened is that the students got caught in the idiosyncrasies of the mechanics of correlation. Certainly the content was extremely rigorous for some of the students. There was a high level of math concept connected to technical use of the computer to analyze data. In other words, we went from conceptual learning to learning about facts in isolation – always a bad way to go.

What was the big idea in laymen’s terms? Is there a mathematical pattern or trend between two variables? The pattern or trend we were searching for was a linear relationship. So, if a set of points for one measure is compared to the set of points for another, do they plot out to produce an image that looks like a line? Once this line is ascertained, how accurate is it? In other words, do the points that were used to plot it have statistical significance?

I can certainly discuss the concept more, but what I want to focus on is concept acquisition, specifically as it relates to teaching and subsequent learning. When considering learning, Fischer, B.B. & Fischer L. (1979). (Styles in teaching and learning. Educational Leadership, 36, 4, 245) suggest that the environment generated by the teacher can be teaching centered, learning centered, or student centered. (There are actually several others, but I will limit for the purpose of this discussion.)

The child-centered

This teacher provides a structure for students to pursue whatever they want to do or whatever interests them. This style is not only extremely rare, it is almost impossible to imagine in its pure form because the classroom, with its adult-child ratio and adult-responsible environment, automatically encourages some interests and discourages others.

The subject-centered

These teachers focus on organized content to the near exclusion of the learner. By “covering the subject,” they satisfy the clearly delineated curricular requirements of the course.

The learning-centered

These teachers have equal concern for the students and for the curricular objectives, the materials to be learned. They reject the over-emphasis of both the “child-centered” and “subject-centered” styles and instead help students, whatever their abilities or disabilities, develop toward substantive goals as well as in their autonomy in learning.

When designing the class, I tried to design learning activities that would allow for some concept acquisition, followed by skill building activities to learn the techniques necessary for computer calculation of correlation. The activities were intended to be compartmentalized and chunked –learn a concept then apply it practically. I think I had planned my class as a learning-centered teacher, but as the class progressed, I think I transitioned more to a subject-centered teacher. I had allowed the content that I was obligated to cover, take over the responsibilities for the class, and mercilessly plowed along, to the dismay of some of the students. I think I would be remiss to mention that some students were with me without fail the whole time. I am struggling with the balance for all of the students.

The challenge for me is to meet the curricular requirements of the class while allowing students to grow to be autonomous quantitative educational researchers. It’s hard enough to be a teacher, let alone a teacher of teachers.

Probably the ironic part of the whole story is as I sit and beat myself up over my work, there are probably students doing the same thing to themselves. We’ll all grow together.

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