Bring out the LEGO

In MSTU 4029 this week we’ll be visiting a local school to see a portal, an immersive audio-visual space, and the school’s Fab Lab.  In preparation, we read an interview with Mitch Resnick, author of Lifelong Kindergarten, professor at MIT’s Media Lab and one of the people responsible for creating the Scratch programming language.  In talking about adoption of the maker movement in schools, Resnick says:

“There are some wonderful instances of people doing great activities around making, and other people who misapply it, and do things in a way that’s too regimented. We’ve seen this in some of the projects we’ve worked on. When we work with the LEGO company on different robotics kits, we see kids doing wonderfully creative explorations and inventions in some places; in other places, the whole class is told what to do and everyone makes the exact same thing. That zaps the creativity out of the process.”

This reminded me of a study in which researchers used LEGO kits vs LEGO free-building to study the impact of task type on creativity in problem solving. The original article, The Downstream Consequences of Problem-Solving Mindsets: How Playing with LEGO Influences Creativity (Moreau and Engeset, 2016) is available through research databases, but also well-summarized here by Psychology Today.  To give a brief overview, Moreau and Engset studied well-defined problems and ill-defined problems.  Well-defined problems have a clear, single answer, have a clear process to arrive at a solution, and often seek quick, logical completion.  Ill-defined problems have no single answer, have a high level of ambiguity, and require creativity to tackle.  Through a number of experiments, they found that subjects who assembled a LEGO kit with step-by-step instructions were less creative in finding solutions to subsequent ill-defined problems that those who were provide with LEGO bricks and the instruction to “build something”(Moreau and Engeset, 2016).  They also found that if someone had been primed for well-defined problem solving, they were more likely to choose a subsequent task that was also well-defined rather than one that was ill-defined (Moreau and Engeset, 2016).  Why does this matter?  Both the original authors and those of the article in Psychology Today ponder whether our increasingly well-defined-problem-lifestyle of ubiquitous Google access to answer any question, step-by-step meal prep services, and other ready-made solutions will make us less prone to seek ill-defined tasks and less creative when faced with them.  Moreover, as AI takes over the well-defined tasks, how well-suited will we be to the ill-defined tasks that face us in solving big problems?  Since most educational technology problems are ill-defined, these findings are worth pondering for anyone who is going to be working in the edtech field.

In light of this, just as we want to encourage creativity in our students, we need to foster it in ourselves and our colleagues.  In my graduate program in 2012, we were able to visit the Google office in NYC.  One of their features was a LEGO room, which we were told was a place for employees to come and foster their creativity.  Seems like Google was on to something there.  Break out the free-building LEGO activities to prime yourself for creativity.

In your next design thinking project, how might your group prime themselves for divergent thinking and creative problem solving?

Works Cited:

C. Page Moreau and Marit Gundersen Engeset (2016) The Downstream Consequences of Problem-Solving Mindsets: How Playing with LEGO Influences Creativity. Journal of Marketing Research: February 2016, Vol. 53, No. 1, pp. 18-30.

Merit Pay and Cholesterol

I’m working on a paper about whether merit pay has any place in independent schools.   Before I write the paper, I need to figure out what I actually think, so I’ve been reading a lot about merit pay and education.  As I read everything from randomized, controlled studies to blogs, I keep getting hit with comparisons of merit pay in education to other careers.  I think I’ve hit on the one that really puts it in perspective for me: my cholesterol.

I have high cholesterol, which one might consider an overall indicator of my health.  What if my doctor got merit pay based on my cholesterol level?

What tools does my doctor have to improve my health as measured by my cholesterol level?

  • Expertise: My doctor can try to impress upon me the importance of lower my cholesterol, my risks, and what I should do.
  • Face Time and Teaching:  My doctor can meet with me to share her expertise and tell me exactly what I need to do, what to eat or not eat, how much exercise I should consider.
  • Medication: My doctor can prescribe any number of medications for reduction of cholesterol.
  • Assessment: My doctor can test my cholesterol periodically to see if I have made progress.
  • Reinforcement/Punishment: My doctor can praise me when I do what she asks and she can rebuke me when I don’t.  Depending on how health insurance works in the future, I may pay more if my cholesterol levels stay high.

What does my doctor have to overcome?

  • My genes: Pretty much everyone in my family has high cholesterol. I’ve had cousins who had high cholesterol in elementary school.  There’s a good chance that there are some genetic forces at work that neither my doctor nor I can control.
  • My beliefs: I believe that there’s little I can do for my cholesterol.  I have a lot of reasons.  People in my family don’t tend to have heart disease in spite of our lipid counts. We do tend to have weird and uncomfortable side effects when we take statin drugs.  We don’t tend to see lower cholesterol as a result of regular exercise.  We don’t generally eat high-cholesterol foods.  Based on these trends, I tend to believe that efforts to lower my cholesterol through prescriptions, diet, and exercise will fail.  Carol Dweck would probably say I have a fixed mindset about my cholesterol.
  • My non-compliance: When I’m actually at an appointment with my doctor, I generally refuse to accept Lipitor or similar medications.  I will however, usually agree to something else that is supposed to lower my cholesterol, like taking fish oil.  Right now I am supposed to be taking fish oil every day.  I haven’t taken fish oil at all since two days after I last promised to start doing it.

Is it fair to measure my doctor’s effectiveness based on my cholesterol level?  No!

With all the tools and expertise that she has, my doctor cannot ultimately control my cholesterol.  If you want to know how good she is, you’d probably need to sit in the exam room and watch her have these conversations and ask me if I thought she was effective.  Simply looking at my number doesn’t tell you anything about her efforts, only about my actions.  I like my doctor a lot; she’s attentive and funny.  She cares a lot about my health. She tries hard to get me to take the measures listed above.  She knows when to push a little harder, like at the beginning of the summer when I have more time to exercise and cook healthy meals.  She knows when to let it lie, like when I’m in the office because of a nasty case of food poisoning.   My total cholesterol count of 290 doesn’t tell you any of this.  If you judged her based on it, you’d do her a huge disservice.

So, hopefully this metaphor makes sense.  Teachers have expertise, face time, teaching tools, homework, parent conferences, stickers, praise, assessments, and grades in their toolbox for helping students learn.   But they have to overcome factors like learning differences, individual motivation, home life, student stress, cultural biases about the value of education, and the value students place on the rewards available to teachers in order to “achieve” which is then measured by a students’ scores on a single day.

I’m still not sure how I feel about some kind of merit pay for teachers, but I understand how I feel about using standardized test scores as the only component of determining teacher effectiveness.  What do you think?  Share your thoughts about this metaphor, your experience with merit pay, or how your school measures about teacher effectiveness. Leave comments about my cholesterol and lipitor out of it, please.

Are your students threatened?

One of my homework assignments this holiday was to read Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, currently Dean of the School of Education at Stanford and previous Provost of Columbia University.   The book focuses on stereotype threat and how students are effected by it.  If you teach, you need to read this book.

Steele served on a minority retention committee while a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  There he saw that African-American students were under-performing based on their SAT scores as compared to other groups.   He describes experiments he and his colleagues did to try to understand what was causing certain college students to under-perform.  Through clear prose, he explains how he and others discovered stereotype threat was responsible for this disturbing trend.

When do students suffer from stereotype threat?  When poor performance would confirm a negative stereotype about a group they identify with.  Steel uses many examples including female math students, white sprinters, minority students and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.   The anxiety induced by wanting to disprove a stereotype or fearing confirming that stereotype actually changes the patterns of activity in the brain and results in poorer performance than the individual would have on that task without the threat.   Stereotype threat has a real and measurable impact on performance, physiology, and emotional well-being.

So, ask yourself, who in my classroom might be under stereotype threat?   Not limited to race or gender, stereotype threat can be based anything that  makes someone a minority in the room.  Fortunately, there are many small and inexpensive interventions that can help mitigate stereotype threat.  The studies in the book are fascinating; I have had the opportunity to read many of them in my coursework.  Small things like normalizing struggle, development of a growth mindset, and values affirmation can reduce the impact of stereotype threat in a surprisingly long-lasting way.

Chances are there is someone in your classroom experiencing stereotype threat.  You owe it to them to read Whistling Vivaldi.   

Thinking about the dark

For my first Program Leadership class at Columbia on Monday, I was assigned to read two articles.  The first was “Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times” by Maxine Greene, which appeared in The Jossey-Bass Reader on Teaching edited by A. Lieberman and published in 2003.  The second was “Dwelling in Possibilities: Our students’ spectacular hunger for life makes them radically vulnerable” by  Mark Edmundson which was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 14, 2008. First, I must confess that I’ve been back in school for just under a week after a twelve-year absence.  That said, I learned every day of those years, but very much on my own terms and sometimes quite shallowly.   I’ve mostly read email and skimmed for key ideas and bold words.  How quickly can I find a solution to this printer problem?   I need to read this book because everyone else on Twitter already has so I’ll skim it.    So, when I first read the Greene’s article, it went completely over my head, so I decided to come back to it and moved on to Edmundson.

Edmundson’s article was one I had seen before.   It’s the kind of thing that people send you when you’re the director of technology at an independent school that has a one-to-one tablet PC program.   I read it again.  Slowly.   Edmundson is a professor at UVA and describes his current students as turbocharged; moving constantly and never limiting their possibilities until the last possible moment.   On my first reading years ago, I tossed the article to the side and kept up my own constant movement.  In my head, I heard Edmundson’s voice as one that didn’t see any merit in technology and that seemed to judge his students harshly.  Now, I hear it as a mix of pity, concern, and maybe just a little bit of that judgement that seemed overwhelming in my first reading.  He sees his studies striving to reach goals that were set for them, perhaps without their own consideration.  He sees them over-achieve to their own detriment.  He sees them skimming the surface of many experiences and believes that these are thus inferior experiences.   Edmundson believes that his field, and moreover, the college experience itself, requires that students slow down.  That they learn to value the Socratic education and focus on self-knowledge.   Edmundson writes, “To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the  work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom  where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.”   While I can wholeheartedly agreed with this statement, it’s the final statement that always provokes me.  “…starting this year, no more laptops in my classroom.”

Rant Warning:  I, as a teacher, will be the first to admit that many people cannot pay attention easily.  If they have a laptop, they will do other things that listen, take notes, and think.  Just like I used to read my English homework in math class, they will read CNN or any other number of sites that are not related to the subject at hand.  Just like I used to write notes to my friends during English, they will IM and email.  Just like I used to periodically drift off and daydream, they will play some solitaire.  There’s not much difference in the behavior – just the mode.   That said, I disagree that laptops should be banned.  I also feel that somehow Edmundson is lumping me in with party-hopping, IMing, disrepectful students who don’t know themselves and make poor choices.  I’m not.  I’m a highly-organized introvert who just likes to organize using OneNote.

Later, I returned to Greene’s article and seemed to have had a breakthrough in basic reading comprehension.    Perhaps my brain hasn’t turned to mush after all.

Greene’s article articulates, with considerably more poetry than Edmundson’s, many of the same ideas.   Both stress the need for learners to slow down, to think, to see possibility, and to look into themselves to find meaning.   They both indicate that this individual reflection must be balanced with community, that is, the ideas and experiences of others.   Both warn against complacency and trivial acceptance of “what is.”  In Edmundson’s world, this complacency comes from moving too quickly, from accepting the goals set forth by others, and from avoiding choices that remove possibility.  In Greene’s world this complacency may come from social and economic injustice and from an inability to see beyond current circumstances.  Edmundson’s students need only turn off their iPods to broaden their worlds, but Greene’s must be shown possibility as they may not have been exposed to it yet.

Aside: Perhaps what resonated most with me in Greene’s article was the statement, “There is too much of a temptation otherwise to concentrate on training rather than teaching, to focus on skills for the  work place rather than any “possible happiness” or any real consciousness of self.”  This is always what has scared me about No Child Left Behind.  Might we find that a generation of children are only able to demonstrate rote skills rather than truly think, imagine, and make change.  As one who taught computer programming, it was always important to me that my students learn the problem solving and creativity needed for code than that they learned to write predictable programs  and get high AP scores.

Both authors look to the classroom experience to allow their students to envision, and then pursue, a better life and a better world.  Both see that happening in a “democratic” setting that requires them to work in community to share ideas and experience, but also in individual thinking and reflection.  Both present the teacher as a force of change and as an counter-cultural force, working to fight complacently.   That’s something that Edmundson, Greene, and I can agree on.

Launching jessicasepke.com

Welcome to JessicaSepke.com.

My project for January was to “spring clean” my online presence.  I’ve created jessicasepke.com from three existing sites

  • jessica.sepke.net (not updated since 2007)
  • jessicasepke.typepad.com (a blog entitled “tech life balance” that I periodically posted two between 2009 and 2011)
  • jessicasepke.wordpress.com (a blog that I actually completely forgot that I had ever started until I went to create a new wordpress account and realized that I already had one)

Posts from the two blogs appear on this site.  Conference presentations and resource listings from jessicasepke.net have been updated here. I’ve also included new information, links to social media, and a resume.  Outside jessicasepke.com, I’ve updated linkedin and tried to generally find broken links and outdated info and get it fixed or updated.

Take a look around the web, you may have a blog that you didn’t remember starting!