Collateral Learning

Archive for June, 2008

In putting together my notes for the presentation I’m giving on “Ethics in the Digital Age” at the Laptop Institute in Memphis, TN, I ran across a posting from David Warlick.  I had the pleasure of meeting David a couple of years ago when he was a keynote speaker at the Laptop Institute, and I have a great deal of professional respect for him.  I agree with his observation regarding where to draw the line regarding cheating, plagiarism, and outsourcing.  Part of the problem, as I see it, is the purpose in the research assignment:

A few years ago I had given a research project to a college level class.  I warned them ahead of time of the consequences for plagiarism and had even spent a chunk of a class period defining plagiarism (from an ethical rather than just your run of the mill Webster’s dictionary version) as well as giving them examples of how I had caught individuals in the past who had attempted to plagiarize on the assignment.  My basic definition: Plagiarism is knowingly taking someone else’s written work, research, art, or ideas without giving the original author his or her credit.  Of course, those who were actually worried about it would ask: “What if I take it unknowingly”?

This is where the role of educator steps in.

Many times we just want to walk away and say “tough” or label them as a cheater.  But this, as with many other situations, opens a “teachable moment” where the teacher is able to show the student how to better research and discover the true purpose of a research assignment.  Now, if that purpose was simply to regurgitate information that has already been written in the past then the purpose of the assignment was to plagiarize (unless the assignment is nothing but quotes).  If the purpose of the assignment was to help to student come to some realization or conclusion about how they stood on an issue or how they interpreted a text, then the teacher has actually assigned something enlightening.

For me, as a teacher, the answer to where we draw the line (as David Warlick proposed) begins both with our understanding of plagiarism but also rethinking our notion of research assignments with our students.

As I continue to put together my notes for my presentation in July, I’ll probably post a bit more on this…

David Warlick’s 2 cents Worth Blog
Picture from Joe In DC’s Flickr photostream

Growing up my dad taught me what every kid should learn: “A job worth doing is worth doing right.”  I was taught that if you were going to do a job, do it right the first time because the second time around never paid.  When I look around at education I have to wonder if we’re doing a good enough job the first time around or are we hoping that somewhere down the line they’ll get it?  We seem to focus on “content areas” where a select elite few hold a greater amount of importance over others.  I agree it is important that our kids can read and write and add and balance a checkbook, but is that where education ends and are they getting the full benefit from those courses?  Are we even doing those “content areas” justice by limiting what is taught in them?

I had the privilege of teaching a course for which there was no set curriculum.  The down side was that it was not a “real class” as many students, teachers, and administrators would remind me.  When students graduated, sure our class was on their transcript, but it fulfilled that “other” gray area otherwise known as “electives.”  You know, those classes that everyone takes just for the easy grades?  Even PE got its special place on the transcript, but not “Religious Studies.”

With this in mind I approached my class as a place to develop critical and analytical thinking, philosophic and ethical development, and, most importantly, logic.  I loved being in the gray area.  Test scores such as the PACT, ACT, PSAT, SAT, PLAN, and every other anachronistically organized bubble test that faced my students in the future, was of little concern to me.  I was free to teach “all out.”  I didn’t have to ignore sections just to make sure I covered what was on the test- if we needed nine weeks to cover Genesis, then so be it- why not?  In the end the job was done and the job was done right.

My challenge to educators is to teach what is important.  Sure, content is important., but haven’t we moved to an age where knowing where to find information is more important than just knowing information?  In the 16th century, Gutenberg’s Press made printed materials more available and began the movement for textbooks in every kid’s hand.  In the early 20th century, radio and television paved the way for newer methods of content delivery and shaped the way we educate.  Why then do we still use antiquated methods of testing even though the methodology of educating has dramatically evolved?  If we, as educators, are going to do the job then we need to do it right- that is, if it’s a job worth doing in the first place.

I had an experience that I think more and more teachers are having recently. I’ve been out of the classroom for a couple of years, but in my previous life I was a religious studies teacher at an all-boys independent Catholic School. Over my six year tenure there, I taught many kids who had an impact on me and shaped how I taught and how I thought about the world around me, but I have to say this is the first time one has had such a profound impact on me well after I taught him. While at the store the other night a young man walked up to the counter beside me. He looked familiar- I knew he had been one of my students but his name completely escaped my memory. I remembered I had taught him his freshman year in 1999, but in no way could I remember his name.  I could remember where he sat and what class he was in, but his name completely escaped my memory.   But it wasn’t just the aged, tattooed version of my former student that I noticed. There was something more, something different. I noticed he struggled with his words and his right arm seemed slightly immobilized beside him. He then reminded me his name and explained to me that after graduating he joined the Marines and was deployed to Iraq where he was badly injured by sniper fire.

This took me aback- I looked at the scars on his head, and listened to him as he carefully formulated the most moving praise I have ever been paid as an educator. Now, I’ve been told I’m the greatest teacher a few times (been told the opposite as well, but hey, who’s keeping score?) but I have never been told it and knew it held so much meaning. He told me that after he was shot, he died five times, and had trouble with his short term memroy, but in the end he remembered some of what he had learned in his religious studies class. He said a few other things that let me know how much I had impacted him and then the guilt set in- I couldn’t even have the decency to remember the man’s name- some influence, huh?

I am in no way going to abuse my blog/soapbox as a way to expound my opinions on the war or politics- after all, what’s the point? This is an educational blog- not another political opinion mill, churning out garbage that serves no purpose other than the selfish means of putting opinions out in hopes to be heard and to inflate my ego (but, isn’t that what blogging is all about?). The point of this posting is simple- while we teach we think about the possibilities and focus on the here and now- passing the test, getting to the next course, making it to college, but what about real world usage? In the end, what will our students remember and actually use?

While teaching I knew that my Religious Studies courses were not the most important class to their academic future- my goal was to make them the most influential. By analyzing scripture and history we began to see the logical connections between historical events and theological shifts. By critically analyzing ethical issues, we focused on consistency in our ethical decisions. My goal was not to have every one of my students come out of my class as biblical scholars. I wanted them to be able to face difficult questions armed with the armor, breastplate, and helmet necessary to make the most informed answers.

That night I learned a number of things from my former student. Many were personal and served as revelations to myself about the fragility of our existence and the importance of a teacher’s influence. I also saw in him a strength and a sense of life that I’ve never experienced before. It was no more about what he’d learned in our class than it was about war- it was about the respect and dignity of human life and the gratefulness for living that I often take for granted. In the end, the teacher became the student as he graciously shared his faith and strength with me.


Picture from jcolman’s photostream on Flickr.

Ephesians 6:10-20

Look all over the internet and you’ll hear talk of VLE’s (virtual learning environment), PLE’s (personal learning environment) and the like but something seems to be missing from all of them. Most learning environments and CMS’s (course management systems) are designed for higher ed with a focus on being used by a faculty that may or may not be as techno-abled as others (for some reason the term “tech savvy” has really gotten on my nerves as of late…). We in the (pre)K-12 environment are left to attempt to adapt these systems into our classrooms. For example, Moodle, WebCT, Blackboard, and so forth, which serve as online versions of the already existing classroom, may in many ways be a limitation rather than technological freedom. So where do we go with this?

Let’s consider a “Collaborative Learning Environment” rather than a Virtual or Personal one. Why? Virtual implies something “like” but “not quite” the real thing and personal is, well, lonely. Learning is no longer virtual or personal online. Kids are participating daily in collaborative discussions regarding music, film, and others aspects of modern popular culture. What are we doing with our classrooms? What are we doing with the online extensions of our classrooms?

In February of 2004 I began running an online discussion group that coincided with the Religion/Ethics classes I was teaching. We were beginning the “Web Site Project” where students worked in groups and designed websites on various topics. They learned how to work with Macromedia Fireworks to design graphics and navigation controls and Microsoft FrontPage to build the pages. Since students were in groups and scattered across different classes the forum served as a place for them to keep discussions and share ideas with other groups. Among the discussion forums there were two extras- guided discussions and general discussions. In less than a week students from different teachers classes, different grade levels and even different schools were involved in discussions about projects, music, social issues, politics, religion, and more. In less than a month the forum had turned into an online monster that was beyond my control (with between 400 and 2000 postings a day, I ended up having to bring in students to help moderate!) Discussions that were begun in class continued on the forum and then picked up again the next day- nothing was left unfinished.

For me, in 2004 the face of the online learning environment shifted away from the static pages for my class website, designed in FrontPage and containing notes from class, to using the web as a means of extending the classroom. With the rise of Wiki’s, Blog’s, Social Bookmarking and Networking, and more the purpose of the “class website” has shifted from being “virtual” and simply “personal” to now allowing us to be truly “collaborative.”

Two important forces guide how we teach and the overall environmental philosophy of education: the Mission of Education and the Business of Education.  The work that teachers put into teaching is nothing short of mission work.  No teacher could ever enter into education with the goal of becoming wealthy.  Educators give overwhelming time and energy to the children they teach.  It is the Mission of Education that drives the idealistic young college graduate to enter into teaching- simply “liking kids” isn’t enough since many days you won’t like them much at all. 

But let’s face it, education is a business.  In private and independent schools that corporate attitude extends even further into annual funds and capital campaigns where parents and alumni are called “constituents” and “investors” whereas in the public sector it’s taxes that pay the bills and build the new buildings and every citizen has a vested interest.   Money is invested in the education of our youth in hopes that the investment will reap tangible rewards we can measure.  Where the Business and the Mission of Education differ is how rewards are measured and success is determined.

A Business approach to education focuses on the tangible profit- bigger buildings, larger endowments, increased salary and benefits, better athletic facilities and programs (especially since a strong athletics program is directly tied to financial growth).  The Mission approach looks toward the more subjective rewards- the thanks a student gives when they claim you were their favorite teacher, the bragging rights you earn when your students already knew the material their teacher was presenting since you had taught it the year before, the creative projects full of the eagerness and spirit of the classroom experience, and so on.  The success of the learning experience is where the two meet- where the Business and Mission of Education collide.  Without teachers giving their all and devoting themselves to the mission of education, no matter how much money you throw at the program, it will fail.  Without the fundraising and business end of education, even the most devoted teacher will lack the proper supplies and funds to carry out his or her mission.

It is here where the parental responsibility falls.  Parents support the school financially through taxes/ tuition and through gifts and volunteer time.  They support the mission of the teachers by helping their child through the projects and homework as well as understanding when their child comes home claiming “my teacher hates me” when we know otherwise.  Parents become the glue that holds the forces together as well as the advocates when one force is lacking or being given favor over the other.

Some things to ponder:
1. How has No Child Left Untested shifted the focus from Mission to Business?
2. What can we do to combat this?
3. How can parents become more involved and supportive of the Mission of Education?