Do we facilitate 21st Century means of Acquiring Knowledge?

Student using Minecraft to create representations of learning

Student using Minecraft to create representations of learning

I asked my students this question.  How do you acquire knowledge?   95% said – Books and Youtube/Internet (the other way around, actually).   About 5 % said Teachers. Ouch.  As I write this post, my son sits across the table watching a video/story about Minecraft World. He tells me that this is how he “learns how to craft”. My other son reads Reddit threads to learn/improve his skills on Java.





Matt Henderson asked me to think about and share my opinions of the following question:

How do people acquire knowledge and how can teachers facilitate this process effectively?

My quick answer- books.

I can’t help but think about the Printing Press of the 1400’s and forward. I am quite certain that when books and newspapers were made readily available to more people, the ability to learn and acquire knowledge must have grown exponentially.  No doubt, the Printing Press changed the world.

Then we added an audio medium  (although I know it was audio way before that, when people just told stories), when the radio (early 1900’s) was invented and the audience got even bigger. Not to mention, those who couldn’t read for whatever reason, suddenly had an opportunity – a freeing opportunity – to listen and learn.  Again, a fine example of extending knowledge and information to a broader context. There is no doubt, the radio changed the world.

Then, a few decades later came the Television. There are still people alive today that can talk about how both, the TV and Radio changed their lives.  With all these methods of information delivery (books, text, audio, video), the message was still based on a certain perspective, value or point of view. This, we know, can (and did) cause enormous suffrage.

How we acquire and interact with information changed yet again, introducing another medium. Along with the internet, we have portable ‘vehicles’ or ‘vessels’ that can share information, not just in print, but now, in combination with audio, video and text. And to take it further, we can change, edit, create and re-create the information in pairs, teams, groups, classrooms and communities regardless of our space or location.

With this said, I change my previous answer. How I acquire information and “knowledge”  is no longer dependent on a single source or text, but on my ability to gather a variety of ideas, opinions, and research that are ever changing and then employ collaborative and ongoing change. It also depends on a burning question or an inquiry that I simply MUST know. Quite honestly, it is inspiring and empowering to find my own answers and exciting to know that my answers lead to more ideas, more information and more knowledge.

Admittedly, I am slightly frustrated that so many our school systems continue to teach students based on the model invented by Printed Press. Or, that we continue to drive information and knowledge that is based on a single point of view (picked by a publisher). Our textbooks, content standards and even our standardized tests are often outsourced regardless of the fact that communication technologies can bring in access to information…to people…to communities all over the world.

As teachers, we need to embrace the idea of blended learning and the use of a variety of technologies and mediums.  Online, there are communities and resources where students can engage in rich discussions, problem based tasks, authentic inquires – but with a variety of supports and mediums. While in-class, students and teachers can share meaningful discussions and can use their understanding of the entire person (voice, body language, eye-contact, physical /mental health) to guide needs and next steps.  Teachers can coach students through thoughtful and provoking questions and as a way to get them to think more deeply about the topic, to want to learn and find more.

Again, Matt asks me to reflect on how I personally acquire knowledge and foster acquisition in my learning environment.

I can look up and learn in any format that I need and self-evaluate until I am certain that I fully understand the skill or drill. I am no longer at the mercy of that single, all knowing, knowledge possessing teacher/leader. My resource pool has grown from the single textbook or course article to many many many sources and people, primary and secondary – including my students!  I have become more critical of information and resources which has led me to think more deeply and reflect more authentically.

I recently wrote an article that discusses the dichotomies of Assessment in Education and I think this relates well to this topic, probably because in education we are consistently finding ways to Assess if and how our students have acquired knowledge and yet, the dichotomy of how students are acquiring knowledge in their “real” lives is quite different then their experiences at school with learning.

The Assessment Barrier –

“There is no reason that students today need to feel isolated or trapped by assessment. Learners can access facts and information in a variety of ways – if we let them.

Teachers can provide assessment and feedback in multiple of ways. Students can apply their learning to creative and real world situations – if we trust them. They can show their learning in audio and visual formats – if we show them. They can use online tools to review and master new skills and can collaborate or discuss ideas anytime and from anywhere – if we encourage them.

Educators today, can access professional development, current information, networks of learners and online tools in ways that didn’t exist even a decade ago. The assessment barrier is only a reality – if we let it be.

My Working Memory Deficit (and why I plead to educators to find other ways)

IMG_0136It is logical to conclude that many educators and leaders lead and teach like they were once led and taught. Why not? They were  good at it. They are the one’s that succeeded – the ones that were just fine learning through rigid assessments, text based assignments, memory driven tasks, criterion based and teacher directed/controlled learning with siloed subjects and curriculum. It is perhaps why we continue to hold on, so dearly, to these methods and pedagogies, even in a world where information and knowledge resources are at an abundance and in a variety of mediums.


In 2007, I read a post by Scott Mcleod called “What do students need to Memorize”. What resonated me the most was his observation (and perhaps prediction) that the kinds of skills that employers are looking for in years to come, might not be those that were once seen as essential in the industrial age . In fact, Scott’s post gave me a strong sense of solace because I always struggled with the methods and pedagogies used during my own education, as he puts it, “those needed by workers in the industrial age factory line economy”. In many ways, I was forced to adapt to a method of learning that was counter to my learning needs and as a result I became really good at finding accommodations, alternatives and tricks that would one day not only put me ahead, but to help me truly understand those learners that do not ‘fit’ within the confines of academia.

Working memory and processing deficits were barriers for me as a learner, and sometimes they still are. I remember, like it was yesterday, spending hours trying to memorize vocabulary tests only to get half the words correct – every time. Math wasn’t as much of a problem, until I was forced to memorize formulas. That hurt. I never understood why they wouldn’t just give me the formula and let me apply it to something useful. It is why I struggled to read at the same level and pace as my peers, or why I audio recorded every one of the lectures during my post secondary education and graduate studies. To pass my psychology courses, I used to pin “fact sheets” to the walls in every room of our house until the names of certain functions or theories were embedded in my brain. And during my grad studies, it is why I read my text books and journal articles to both my children when they were just infants. It is why I struggled to complete memory fill-in-the-blank type tests and why I hated history, but loved Geography. It is why, as a teacher, I advocated so strongly for a more liberal ‘hand-held’ device policy back in 2002, when my place of employment banned them from all classrooms – my palm pilot offered a dictionary and thesaurus at my finger tips and I learned how to search for facts, words, information on a whim.

No matter how many tests or quizzes I got, no teacher in the world could “cure” or “teach” me to have a better working memory. Think of it as wearing glasses. No matter how many strategies or lectures or videos or lessons you got without the glasses, you still cannot see clearly unless the glasses are on, right? Interestingly, other than at school, I cannot think of a single day that I was discouraged to use any of my self-made accommodations that helped me with memory and spelling. In fact, I learned to think quickly, find information fast, problem solve, and work with others – these were the essential skills that I needed to survive. According to Scott, I might seem quite prepared for the 21st Century! And my lack of quick recall and need for accommodation did not put me at a disadvantage in the real world – only at school.

Now, almost 2014, we continue to have debates around the usefulness of spelling tests or open book math tests. We continue to test kids on their understanding of our courses and place a certain ‘blame’ on them when their grades don’t meet our standard. We continue to teach students in an unnatural environment – that we ourselves could not succeed in given the same circumstances: No internet, no computer/tech devices and constant evaluation. We continue to see classroom technology as “assistive” rather than universal. We continue to confuse memorization with knowledge and knowledge with intelligence.

I implore you to travel back to 2007 and re-read Scott’s post about Memorization. Ask yourself why, 7 years later, we continue to argue this point.  Even better, take a look at the comments and discussion that ensued. Are we ready to accept some of these ideas and thoughts? Are we ready to separate the concepts memory and understanding?





On the Tip of Their Tongue – Use audio for Assessment and Evaluation

IMG_8004 2“________ has not handed in the assignment. Neither has ____________or ____________or ______________. Please have them come to my class and finish their work during lunch hour. ”

“_______  failed the test…..can you give him/her time during class for a rewrite?”


“________needs extra time in my class to do his/her work.”

These types of concerns were shared with me (their homeroom teacher), almost daily by other teachers. Let me be clear. I don’t blame those teachers.  When put into a timeframe or constraint (part of their schedule), many of  identified (exceptionality) Gifted students would shut down, move on, or just not finish. Why bother? And so, they would either be graded accordingly, or be given another chance to prove themselves, over and over. But, what I was seeing in the homeroom was often very different from what other teachers were seeing. Why? Were the students being honest in sharing what they really know? Was the assessment designed in a way that allowed them to demonstrate the higher order skills that they are truly capable of? Was the results of the assessment truly accurate of the students ability?

As a teacher in a self-contained gifted classroom, my students would spend the majority of the day in my class. I was responsible for teaching and assessing the core subjects, which included Language, Math, History and Geography.  The other subjects (Music, Drama, Art, Phys-ed/Health, Science) were taught by teachers in a rotary timetable, each for only a small section of the day or week.  There are certainly many pros and cons to this type of schedule for which I will leave for another post. I had more time (then the rotary teachers) to build relationships with my students, which afforded me the opportunity to not only know them well, but to also learn and explore creative ways to assess and evaluate them.

Providing differentiated opportunities to demonstrate their understanding, communication, thinking and application not only made my assessments more authentic, but it gave me more confidence and certainty when providing evaluation or using the assessment to steer or customize my teaching. For many of them (my Gifted students), their thoughts and ideas raced so fast that many tended struggled to translate anything into print of any kind (pencil/pen/computer). The eloquent and creative words and phrases that they wanted to share, examples they wanted to give, ideas they just discovered were there, right there….on the tip of their tongue. That’s it… literally, on the tip of their tongue.

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.00.44 PMLet me share a couple of strategies that I would swear by. The information that I would get was from night to day when allowing students to use AUDIO and talk it out. And it is so simple.

1)   My Number #1 assessment strategy was to allow students to share their work in audio format using the Livescribe Pen. (LivewithLivescribe gives many applications:  Students were all given a small pad of Livescribe Sticky pads and would use the pens available in the classroom to speak their answers instead of focusing on their writing. They were all allowed to provide an audio response in every test (a Universal Designed approach). Students that really needed to use this strategy were more comfortable when all students were given the chance. Funny – they seemed all want to do this, even if they all didn’t really need to.  Audio just made it more clear, more detailed, more personal.  While there are MANY other ways to use this pen to accommodate or differentiate student learning, using this tool to collect assessment data and information might be my favourite.

The beauty of this strategy, is that when used with EVERNOTE, the sticky notes, tests, or assignments were EASILY be added to their portfolio for an audio anecdotal and then shared with the student and parent. Seamless.

It would be inappropriate of me not to mention that I would also carry a sticky pad in my pocket (or on my desk) which I would use for ongoing meetings with students, in audio.  One demonstration question (like an exit card) student can explain, in audio and we both have a copy (the sticky that I give to them and the digital file that I have after plugging in the pen).

IMG_8018 2)   EDUCREATIONS  – ipad app. Hands down, this is one of the best.  demonstration apps. Students could take pictures of their work and then use the app to explain. Students would use the app similarly as the Livescribe pen. Simply add a word or number and speak their mind. Students used this tool to share their math, create presentations, and for creative designs.


I look forward to continuing my work with the Gifted Program at the HWDSB as a Gifted Itinerant Teacher. I look forward to learning from others and exploring and sharing the innovative teaching and learning strategies that are happening in so many classrooms.