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Learning at its Best

Education, Technology, Love, Part II: Content

I cannot say I absolutely knew I would find what I was looking for on YouTube, but I was fairly certain. I typed in ‘plowing with oxen’. The first result was perfect: roughly six or seven seconds from when the student had asked the question, there were the oxen plodding along the seven foot wide projector screen at the front of the classroom hooked up to my Mac, demonstrating the slow, physically grueling methods of pre-industrial agriculture.

I use this method every day; it is my content base, as I do not use textbooks. Sometimes, it is handy as questions come up, as students inevitably will not all know what a Maersk liner is or the intricacies of the reloading mechanism on a Brown Bess (in response to this a middle school student said “Oh! They stood in lines because it took so long to reload!”, which made both my day and, I think, a point about visual learners). Other times, it’s handy because I’m presenting a specific stimulus, like the image below by Eric Fischer:

This image is a visualization of US Census data, with racial self-identification color coded: blue is African American, red is Caucasian, orange Hispanic and green Asian/Pacific Islander. There are like maps for 40 American cities – my economics class explored a number of them in coordination with the the census visualizer from the NYTimes to witness contrasting patterns of racial and socioeconomic dispersion in urban areas.

Content like this is integrative. It is political, social, economic and historic simultaneously. It does not abide by any arbitrary academic boundary placed on knowledge, and one is compelled to use the full battery of conceptual ammunition of the social sciences to investigate it.

I don’t expect that the few contents of the following toolbox will surprise anyone – but I encourage everyone to take a second look, to contemplate what it represents: a functionally limitless access to free content of extraordinary pedagogic value. The common feature of these tools is that they are aggregators that allow the user to move quickly and easily from the general to the specific and back again, and, in terms of human comprehension, they are so loud as to be silent. They are the world’s music, images, movies and text.

  • Google
  • Spotify – nearly all the world’s recorded music, instantly searchable and streamable, free
  • Google Images – a high resolution image of any object and every famous piece of artwork, billions (no kidding) of historical photos, free
  • YouTubeexpert explanations of concepts, demonstrations of concepts and phenomenafree
  • Wikipedia, Google Books & Amazon – the quick and dirty, the deep scan, the selection of a book and access to it

There is a catch of course, to using all of this extraordinary, engaging content: it’s chaotic. To move nonlinearly, to allow so much content into the classroom, more than can ever be mastered, and to allow students to pursue content they’re passionate about – one reading a book on Surrealism and the other reading a book on intellectual history – other facets of the classroom experience, and the planning process, must change in turn. More on that in Part III.



3 thoughts on “Education, Technology, Love, Part II: Content

  1. I think I’m a pretty good problem solver / problem identifier. And I believe in the importance of learning beyond the textbook – BOTH core knowledge and the use of that core knowledge in real situations. So the real value of the Internet and technologies is the access to present-day thoughts. Some will be sound and some will be flawed – ALL will (or should) help the user organize the vision of the situation being considered that leads to the most useful result. THIS, to me, is what postings to this blog represent in terms of facilitating authentic effective learning.

    My grandchildren approach questions / situations REGULARLY through accessing the digital world – immediately! And they’re ten through fourteen now and have been at it for years. As Seth Godin and posting such as this have been reminding us, the textbook and the methods / procedures of the publishing industry in general is so out of date.

    Until taking emeritus status, I taught Principles of Thermodynamics regularly as part of my teaching load. I routinely suggested to students that they convert their textbook into a reference book – THEIR reference book, in a fashion useful to them. They would find it so valuable on their bookshelf – for quick access as needed fairly readily. Still the case of course; but with the digital access they WE all have these days, no need for them.

    The new flipped classroom pedagogy together with the type of exciting considerations discussed in this posting represents the WHOLE NEW WORLD of effective learning in the classroom. AND, as lifelong learning is now an absolute requirement in pursuit of a purposeful and successful career and personal life, THIS PEDAGOGY CHANGE IN SCHOOL IS AN ABSOLUTE MUST.

    For educators underprepared, out of their comfort zone, and thus apprehensive, don’t hesitate. Join us who have already begun. Lots of help: your colleagues, the digital world again here – especially social networking, professional learning – so much more descriptive than using PD, and last but certainly not least: YOUR STUDENTS!

    We educators face a choice: (1) we can defend an expanded status quo believing we just need more resources – putting ourselves at the mercy of politicians and policy makers since what’s being done is not working and illinformed changes will be mandated; or (2) we can work for changes that will work to be done well – aligning ourselves with appropriate reform and helping to inform politicians and policy makers of our willingness to work with them to change what’s not working.


    Posted by John Bennett | April 15, 2012, 3:29 pm
  2. Colin:

    Great article! I feel you hit all the right points. It’s exciting and amazing to bring in all this extra material for students to use, but it truly daunting from the standpoint of an educator. I wanted to make two points to go along with what you wrote.

    First, the power of visuals hit home for me (again) recently when we were talking about the Assyrians and how their mastery of iron gave them a formidable advantage over other ancient civilizations. I got tired or reading about “their mighty iron weapons”, and searched until I found a set of videos showing how iron was produced using nothing but materials from ancient times. Students watched a furnace being constructed from mud and clay, saw the labor involved in getting it to fire up to such a high temperature, then watched (with mouths hanging open) as workers repeatedly dragged a lump of red-hot metal out, smashed it over and over again with a rock, then reshaped it until it formed a spear head. (Check out for a brief trailer if interested!). When it was over and I asked “Why was iron-making such a big deal?” they were ALL ready to chime in with solid, pertinent comments.

    OK, so that was the ‘up’ side. Here’s the downside: I have also come to the conclusion that students today are also very quick to not think on their own about a topic or question unless thrown some sort of visual or model. Most of my students (Boston Public School students) simply take the information given to them at face value and don’t really go beyond the ideas before them unless prompted (“shoved” is more like it!). Case in point: We covered a section on the Phoenicians. Everyone read about how the Phoenicians were mighty traders. They also read “As they traded, they spread their civilization”. When I asked how traded allowed the Phoenicians to ‘spread their civilization’, almost everyone just stared at me (after staring at the text). Not much curiosity, not much interest in getting a deeper meaning from the information. I do worry that having demonstrations, illustrations, explanations, etc., might be lulling these ‘horses’ into sitting back and waiting for the teacher to lead them to the water – instead of going in search of it themselves…

    Posted by John Padula | April 15, 2012, 8:50 pm
  3. Hey Colin,
    I love reading your posts here. You rock, man!

    I remember 20+ years ago while getting my initial teaching certificate, I wrote a paper on the pedagogical value of chaos. It seemed everything we new teachers were being taught had to do with preserving order – behavior, achievement, etc. Nature and humanity just isn’t that predictable. I thing a having a willingness to accept some degree of chaos from time to time is critical if you’re going to keep the classroom real. Thanks for this reminder. I love these demographic/racial distribution images. A picture is really worth a thousand words here.

    Look forward to your next post.

    Posted by holisticdancingmonkey | April 16, 2012, 11:51 pm

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