What Gyres and Gimbles in the Wabe? A Synthesis.

-Eric Fitton

Teaching is my third profession. I went back to school, at Michigan State, to earn my teaching certificate. Part of my requirements at MSU was to tutor in an inner city school. I ended up working with an English Language Learner (ELL) who was a refugee from the Ivory Coast. Obviously this had an impact in and of itself. However, one experience I had with her, regarding understanding, will never leave me. She was working on a History worksheet dealing with a reading about the Lewis and Clark expedition and had answered all but the last question correctly. The last question was who was Lewis and Clark’s guide. She answered “Mississippi River.” She had no conceptual understanding for any of her answers. She was simply looking for the identical phrase in the reading and answering the next set of words that were capitalized. Seeing how she was not fluent, the pattern matching was impressive. However, the task itself was meaningless.

I am thankful that I only see it rarely, but I occasionally see students with word searches. I simply do not see the point. There is no higher order thinking. There is really no lower order thinking. Students are not developing their vocabulary or studying concepts, they are simply looking for a word they may or may not know in a jumble of letters. As I end my Masters of Arts at MSU in Education Technology (MAET) I have started to see most webquests as our high tech word search. Too often students enter a webpage and pattern match for the phrase on their assignment paper and fill in the answer. My refugee student may have just as well answered Mississippi River on a webquest as on a reading assignment.

As I finished my education classes for my teaching certificate and did my student teaching the experience with my (ELL) student stayed with me as I thought about the assignments I gave, the questions I ask during class and influenced my pedagogical practice in general. My first three classes at MSU for my Masters occurred concurrently and we quickly were inundated with new technology. This was fun and was an impressive amount of content. However, in the back of my mind I was thinking: “To what end?” Shortly thereafter, the professor introduced the class to the TPaCK framework. Years ago Dr. Shulman at MSU had pointed out that pedagogy and content should not be thought of independently. What you are teaching impacts how you teach it. This makes sense to me. More recently, Doctors Mishra and Koehler added technology to the mix. The technology you use should work synergistically with your content and the pedagogy. This can be software designed for the content, such as dynamic geometry software for math teachers like GeoGebra. Often the technology is repurposed, students using wordle.net and Project Gutenberg combined to review for a literature test.

As I finished CEP 810, 811 and 812 I always was thinking about how technology could enhance my instruction. At times this thinking was more in the background. An example of this background thinking from the summer of 2011:

  • Should I have students journal in my math classes?
  • If I journal, should this be pencil and paper or should this be a blog?
  • How does blogging enhance a students understanding beyond a pencil and paper journal?
  • Is there a place for both?

Other times my professor explicitly asked for our thinking about technology, content and pedagogy. This was the main point of the “Wicked Project.” Each of us was asked to consider a problem that was difficult for our subject area. I chose having students being both capable at calculations and having a deep conceptual mathematics understanding. In essence, I reject the premise behind “The Math Wars.” More specifically, I looked at a Geometry Lesson on teaching the Triangle Inequality Theorem and explored four different possible ways of teaching the lesson. Each method of teaching tightens the connections between technology, pedagogy and content. TPaCK was very much on my mind during this project. Moreover, it was referenced and used throughout the actual Wicked Project.

The following fall I took CEP 820, “Teaching K12 Students Online.” To say that I was skeptical of teaching a high schooler online before taking this class would be an understatement. My previous experiences of students taking classes online were with NovaNet and with PLATO. I have been underwhelmed with these programs. I find it hard to motivate students and keep them on task when they are in my room, students on these computer programs frequently do not finish as there is no one to keep them on task. Moreover, as Dr. Mishra would say, a lecture is a lecture whether it is in person or on a computer. These programs generally have poor lectures and completely miss the interactive component that exists in a classroom. However, my experience with CEP 820 convinced me that an online class does not have to be experientially close to what students experience with NovaNet and PLATO.

Going into CEP 820 I thought of technology as a supplement. Even considering TPaCK, it was a way to make lessons better, I could always fall back on older technology like paper and pencil. When thinking about teaching online TPaCK becomes more than a good idea, it becomes a necessity. However, what I really liked about this course was that there was at least as much focus on pedagogy and content than on technology. Obviously we were learning about Content Management Systems and trying to determine what our email policy would be. At the same time, we needed to think about how grouping might look online. We considered how would we make sure we were asking higher order thinking questions. My online lectures, and some were lectures, focused on conceptual understanding. I also added a higher order thinking project to my Moodle website and set up a structure for students to analyze their own understanding. Collaboration, higher order thinking, varied instructional methods and additional tools for mathematics are all missing on NovaNet and PLATO; however, CEP 820 convinced me that they do not have to be missing from an online course.

This summer I again took three classes concurrently: CEP 800, 815 and 822. During the first week of class Dr. Mishra invited a former MAET student and current high school math teacher to give a short presentation to our class. What she talked about was “flipping” her classroom. Lectures happened at home distributed using YouTube and other types of technology. In class they did what were normally be considered homework. On one hand, a lecture is a lecture no matter where a student hears it. On the other hand, lecture is usually the least interactive part of the day with students. Moreover, homework is where students normally need help but are stuck on their own. With a flipped class students can get help not only from the teacher but from other students. Additionally, you have more time to try projects and have discussion during class time. Reflecting on the idea, I realized that a flipped classroom is not a new idea. I remember reading in my high school literature class and coming to class for a discussion. Mathematics texts are too dense to count on as the only means of direct instruction for students. However, technology has helped level the playing field with literature classes. However, I initially was concerned about the lack of technology at home. Many of my students don’t have access to YouTube at home. Then another student recommended DVDs. I am planning on trying a unit this year using the flipped classroom. The short presentation along with conversations, experiences and knowledge from my classmates helped me see how technology could potentially radically transform my classroom.

The idea of flipping a unit is what drove my Dream IT project for the class. I chose a unit on logarithms because it incorporates the least amount of prior knowledge. This makes my lectures less interactive than normal as I have more trouble activating my students prior knowledge. The other piece of my plan is to make sure that I do more than simply change where the activities take place. Considering the TPaCK framework I need to use technology to distribute the lecture, but I need to make sure that my fifty five minutes with students every day is a good mesh of guided practice, exploration and higher order thinking tasks. Often this piece needs to include modern technology to fully bring the class period to life.

I often start the school year with the Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. I ask them: what do the toves do in the wabe? I ask them” what was “frumious?” What kind of sword did the protagonist wield? Most students merrily work away and can answer every question. Then I asked them what they learned. We still don’t know what it means to gyre and gimble. We know nothing of a Bandersnatch. The entire poem is nonsense. Then I point out that this is the type of activity we are trying to avoid in my classroom. The idea is to make sense of the material, not to memorize steps and simply give answers from context clues. This feeling has not changed since I saw Mississippi River as Lewis and Clark’s guide and the belief has continued as I advanced through MSU’s Masters of Arts in Education Technology. What has changed is how I look at technology. As I reflected earlier, my use of technology has not changed wholesale, but my views of technology have evolved.

TPaCK is the largest influence on me coming out of my experience at MSU. Instead of considering the technology separately, I am now looking at it with an eye towards my content and thinking about how it will integrate with how I teach my lesson. I continue to use Dynamic Geometry software and my Interactive Whiteboard. But now I have students collaborating with Google Documents. I have screencasts up on YouTube for when I have a substitute teacher. I have laid the groundwork for flipping sections and units of my class. All of these are examples loaded with modern technology, but all integrate with my pedagogy and content.