Monday, November 28, 2011

Et tu, Nicholas Carr?

I did not intend for it take this long for me to finish writing up my thoughts and reflections on AASL, but, well, it has. I thought of skipping writing this up altogether, but I’ve had a draft going for so long this now more about a battle of wills than anything else.

While at AASL I had the pleasure of sitting on a book discussion panel with Sara Kelly Johns, Joyce Valenza, Doug Johnson, and Nicholas Carr; we were all there to discuss Carr’s book, The Shallows.

I found the book very interesting—very frustrating at times, as the notes in my margins will attest—but I thought there were a lot of interesting ideas. I was excited to have a chance to talk to Carr about some of the things the book had made me think about—ideas beyond what he’d written. I wanted to take the conversation he’d started in the book, and push it in new directions.

I’ve posted the “long version” of my question to Carr; I did not read the entire thing—these were my notes I used to prepare (looking at this made me realize something a colleague had said to me years ago, but which I didn’t think was true—I tend to think in paragraphs. This kind of weirds me out). My question to Carr was about the ADD brain, and whether it may be better adapted to this new information landscape.

Tom Hartmann's hunter vs. farmer theory of ADD/ADHD (which is by no means the definitive explanation) proposes the idea that ADD was, at one point, an evolutionary advantage. When we hunted for our food we needed people who were excited about the risk and pursuit of the kill—but also able to muster the hyperfocus necessary to hunt and track an animal. However, those skills are maladaptive in most classrooms and offices. But with media environments that call for us to not only switch focus frequently, but also have the ability to focus in on important information (you know, like if that rustling in the bushes is the wildebeest we want to make our dinner), is it possible that we’re coming back to a time when people with ADD are at an evolutionary advantage again?

His response was, in a word, unsatisfying. His response to all of our questions was, frankly, unsatisfying. Not because of the content of the answer, but because he seemed—both in that book discussion and in conversations outside of that formal discussion—unwilling to engage in ideas outside of what he had decided he wanted to talk about.

I may be assuming too much. Maybe he does engage and dig into ideas with other people in other contexts. But he was there specifically to talk about his book and the ideas in it. However, it became clear that he was there just to talk about the ideas in his book—not to apply his ideas to new information or contexts.

For someone who had written a book that had a basic premise of “people are no longer willing and able to engage deeply with new ideas”, his seeming unwillingness to engage deeply with new ideas was, well. . . surprising.

I would have loved to point that out to him, but I have a feeling he may not have engaged with that idea either.


This is the long version of the question I asked of Carr:

I work at a school for students with learning disabilities, primarily dyslexia and ADD/ADHD. Inattention, lack of focus, and distractibility are not unfamiliar topics for me. And while no one--particularly not those who have or work with those who have ADD—would deny that it presents a variety of challenges, there are unique strengths to the ADD brain as well--the draw to risk and change, the willingness to identify problems (even or especially when tact would make others hold back), the eagerness to respond in the moment, and when engaged in an issue that interests them, a laser-like focus that is unparalleled.

Tom Hartmann's hunter vs. farmer theory of ADD/ADHD, while not the definitive explanation of the roots of ADHD, does offer an interesting hypothesis for the evolutionary basis for ADD. The theory proposes that the high frequency of ADD in modern settings represents otherwise normal behavioral strategies that become maladaptive in environments such as the classroom or office. Traits that made it possible for our nomadic ancestors to survive can make life very difficult for our settled selves.

But not in all instances. There are still situations in which the ADD brain thrives. The
environment of video games you described yesterday--being asked to pay attention to multiple stimuli at once and respond to all--sounds a lot like the demands placed on an ER doctor--a role in which the ADD brain thrives.

There is one particular strength of the ADD brain that some of us might be rightfully
jealous of, and that is the ability to hyper focus. After all, being a good hunter was not just about risk and pursuit of the kill; it also entailed patience and persistence.

That intense focus on a topic, usually to the exclusion of all others, is something that many seem to want to do, but comes naturally to many with ADD when they are engaged in a topic about which they are truly passionate. This focus, combined with its impulsiveness, makes the ADD brain, in many ways, the entrepreneurial brain. And I don't think anyone would argue we don't need entrepreneurial brains.

The world shifted and changed in a way that made life more difficult for those with ADD,
but if now our technology is truly making us more distracted and distractible, are those
with ADD, and their ability to hyper focus, at an evolutionary advantage again?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

UDL: The curb cut's cognitive cousin

At a session at AASL—which was, ostensibly, about creating resiliency in students—the presenter said the following:

“There’s very little we can do that supports students at risk that doesn’t take away from other students.”

I was already, at that point, pretty annoyed by almost everything in the session (Someone else in the session had said that a good way to teach positive classroom behavior was to threaten students to hold them in for recess, and the presenter agreed that this was an excellent way to teach positive behavior, which almost made me lose my mind. Here’s a classroom management tip: if you, as an adult, would find such treatment insulting, chances are it’s not going to have the desired impact with students. How does that teach anything? How does it address the root of the problem? If a student is genuinely struggling in the classroom due to a hidden or undiagnosed learning disability—or for any number of other reasons—and that struggle is manifesting as misbehavior, how does holding a child in for recess address the issue? And if you hold the entire class for the misbehavior of one, you’re further ostracizing that child. It’s just awful, all around. /overly-long parenthetical rant) and had been trying to make my escape (it was sparsely attended and we kept having to talk to our neighbor, which made it a little awkward).

I’m almost glad, however, that I did stay to hear that, as sometimes I forget what an unfortunately pervasive attitude that is. So many teachers believe that you can’t help the at-risk students in your classroom without somehow taking away time/attention/focus/etc. from the other students in your classroom.

(When I mentioned my frustration with that session/presenter, another colleague pointed out that, yes, if you put an at-risk student in a class of 37 (a number based, sadly, on the reality of a friend of hers), it is going to take away from the amount of attention you’re able to give the other students. Which is likely true, but if you already have 37 students in a room you likely already have high needs students, and it’s also likely that there are many students not getting the attention that they need. There is only so much good pedagogy and instructional design can address.)

Anyway, this all is a perhaps overly-wordy way to introduce the Learning Commons session I presented at AASL (and since, apparently, this blog post is all about the parenthetical aside, I'm going to use this one to give a HUGE thank you to Buffy Hamilton for all her work creating an amazing learning space).

Universal Design for Learning is built on the idea that the students in our schools vary widely in their abilities, and we need to design our curriculum in order to meet the needs of those learners. It is up to us to fit the curriculum to our students, not the students to fit themselves to our curriculum. Curricula that are designed from the outset to meet the needs of a variety of learners will meet the needs of far more students than one designed for the mythical "average" student.

I think of UDL as the curb cut's cognitive cousin. The curb cuts that are in all sidewalks were originally put there in order to make them accessible for people in wheelchairs, but those curb cuts are also useful for those of us pushing strollers or dragging wheeled suitcases. Sometimes--and I think this is especially true in the library--we don't know the individual learning profiles of our students. But if we design our curricula to meet the needs of a variety of learners from the outset, we don't need to worry about retrofitting to individuals.

I am, by no means, a UDL expert, and I don't think my library curriculum is perfect in that regard. But they are principles I strive to implement as I design instruction and select material.

Aimee Mullins, who I refer to in my slide deck, has an amazing TED talk about the views of dis/ability, and how much perspective matters:

Our perspective on students, and what they're able to accomplish, is what sets the tone in our libraries and in our classrooms and in our schools. By designing our schools to meet all learners where they are, we make them places of possibility.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A snow storm, the keys to the bus, and a teleporter

I’m writing this from my parents’ house, on a bit of an impromptu mini-vacation, having fled Connecticut in search of electricity, heat, and hot water. Of course, power was restored to my school while I was driving here, meaning I will be turning around to un-flee early tomorrow morning. In a way I can’t quite put my finger on, this feels like a metaphor for my entire fall.

As frustrating as another multi-day power outage is (especially when it’s so cold!), it was nice to have an excuse, after a very busy fall and especially busy October, to cocoon myself in blankets and sleep for a very long time. My body and brain were both overdue for a little hibernation.

My job has changed a bit this fall, as I’ve found myself taking on more and more in the realm of technology integration. To be honest, the line between librarian and ed tech facilitator has always been a little fuzzy for me; frankly, I think the line between educator and ed tech facilitator should generally be a little fuzzy. All educators should be using and reflecting on the role of educational technology—and guiding students in using and reflecting on technology.

Over the years I’ve spent working here, and particularly this fall as we’ve launched our iPad program, I’ve found myself getting more and more directly involved with ed tech. Finally this fall I had a meeting with “powers that be” types and said, basically, “I’m driving this bus. I need the keys.” And they gave me the keys! Which is awesome! And overwhelming! But the other really great thing that came out of that meeting was knowing that my work in this area is noticed and appreciated and supported. Having recently spent time talking with colleagues in other schools who do amazing work that goes unappreciated by their supervisors, I know how lucky I am to have supportive administrators.

The first thing I decided to do in my official role as Educational Technology Facilitator was survey my faculty about their comfort level with ed tech and their professional development needs. The results in many ways confirmed what I had suspected—teachers want ed tech professional development to be iterative and hands on. Not a few days a year, but ongoing—and they also want the opportunity for one-on-one support and independent learning. I’ve been working on creating more and more tutorials, which also helps with the “I’ve answered this question a million times” feeling—now I have a ton of links I can send out when needed. I’m also trying to set up informal “drop-in” tech instruction times during the school day (as well as before and after). I’m hoping to do this a bit more now that I’m done with conference travel for a little while.

The survey also garnered a request to “learn all the things” as well as a teleporter. It’s reassuring to know that my colleagues have totally realistic expectations of what I’ll be able to accomplish in this role.

My next goal for this role (and I’m saying it here in the hopes that someone will hold me to it) is to institute a “23 things” style program for my faculty. While at AASL I saw a presentation about doing exactly that, and got some great ideas that I plan on stealing.

More AASL reflections (hopefully) to come in the next couple weeks. I have a feeling that things are genuinely going to slow down, but I have some ideas and reflections I’d like to share (including the slides from my Learning Commons presentation).

Tangentially related, if you haven’t already, please check out School Libraries: What’s Now, What’s Next, What’s Yet to Come, a collaborative ebook edited by Kristin Fontichiaro and Buffy Hamilton. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.