Teaching to the Brain

I've long held a ravenous appetite for learning how the brain works and how those capacities can be leveraged to help kids (and me) learn. I recently bought the owners manual. A few days back Jeff Utecht tweeted about a Google Talk by John Medina, authour of the book Brain Rules. John is blogging and sharing some great stuff.

Garr Renolds adapted some of the Brain Rules for presentations. As I've blogged earlier presenting information is something teachers do every day and we need to learn a lot more about how to do it more effectively. So, for my own future reference, and yours if you like, here is John Medina's Google talk, Garr's presentation, and a seemingly unrelated presentation by Dean Shareski whose K12 Online presentation on Design Matters continues to push my thinking every day. Look at how this presentation of Dean's adheres to many of John Medina's Brain Rules; and Dean hasn't even read John's book yet.

In future posts I hope to share how what I'm learning from all this is making it's way into my classroom. I'd love to hear how others incorporate these ideas into their work as well; in education or elsewhere. When we share these ideas and applications, whether they work or not, it helps us all learn.


Dean referenced this video at the end of his presentation; it's well wortht the 4 minute look:

Arnold Wasserman: Culture of Innovation

I had the good fortune to be invited to attend Microsoft's inaugural Innovative Teachers Conference this past week. As always, the highlights for me were the people and the conversations we had in the hallways and over good food.

By far, the best part was meeting face to face for the first time with Kathy Cassidy and Ben Hazzard. When you mix in Clarence Fisher, Chris Harbeck, John Evans, Joan Badger with an open Ustream feed to bring in Dean Shareski, Alec Couros, and a wider network of passionate educators via twitter you get some of the best professional development around. Unfortunately we didn't record it. However, about 100 seconds were captured by Rodd Lucier, thanks for that Rodd!

Lesson Learned: Always record in Ustream. And if you're watching and wondering if you should screencast, the answer is: yes!

The conference opened with a keynote presentation by Arnold Wasserman from The Idea Factory. His presentation was titled The Culture of Innovation. It was filled with thought provoking ideas but I strongly disagree with his essential message in this first presentation of two: It is impossible to innovate your professional practice unless the organization within which you work is an innovative organization.

Here is the podcast recording of that presentation. Give it a listen. I'd love to hear what you think after you hear Arnold speak.

(Download File 21.4Mb, 44 min. 40 sec.)

I captured three other podcasts during the conference which I will share here over the next few days: Arnold Wasserman (part 2), Richard Van Eck (on educational gaming; he was the highlight presenter of the conference for me), and Les Foltos' closing session that had several of us brianstorming around the idea of what the ideal innovative classroom would look like: physically, pedagogically, and with an eye towards teachers professional development.

Student Voices Episode 3: Chris, Craig, and Graeme

In this episode of Student Voices three Advanced Placement Calculus students, Chris, Craig, and Graeme, talk about a wiki assignment they did to prepare for the exam. Then the conversation transitions to a discussion of the many things they learned while doing their Developing Expert Voices project. It ends with a challenge, the result of which will be featured in a future podcast.

You can find their project on this year'sDeveloping Expert Voices blog or scattered across YouTube; it's called DEV: Watch and Learn; soon to be aggregated on the project blog.

Let Chris, Craig, and Graeme know what you thought about the podcast by leaving a comment here on this post or on the mirror of this post on their class blog.

(Download File 31.8Mb, 26 min. 30 sec.)

The video mentioned near the end of the podcast is called Daft Hands. Here it is:

Photo Credit: Shadow singer by flickr user EugeniusD80

Things They Should Have Taught Me

Today I swung a meter stick around the classroom like a samurai sword. I called it: "My great and mighty swuhord!" It's become my standard opening for the unit on conic sections which we'll be studying in grade 12 pre-cal for the next week or so. This is followed by playing with paper; folding it to create a parabola according to the locus definition — but I don't tell them that's what we're doing right away. Here are the slides from the class:

As I swung the swuor ... meter stick, I spoke Japanese with a feigned accent: "Kawasaki, Susuki, Honda! Sony Mitsubishi!" (Yeah yeah, they're not all Japanese. I know.) My lips kept moving soundlessly after I finished speaking. We we're rolling on the floor laughing. We had to stop for a laugh break. Talking straight faced about mathematics, my lips continued moving for a few seconds after I spoke throughout the rest of the class.

Here's the thing though, when I started talking about the connections between the geometry and the algebra behind parabolas I had their complete attention. They followed every step of the way. Even those that don't usually pick things up quickly the first time picked it up fairly quickly when it was reexplained.

I've always tried to use some humour in my classroom, but reading an article about two years ago really inspired me to try to inject even more humour in my teaching. It's called USING HUMOR IN THE COLLEGE CLASSROOM TO ENHANCE TEACHING EFFECTIVENESS IN "DREAD COURSES". This is part of a larger course for college instructors on how to be better teachers.

Why don't they teach this stuff to pre-service K12 teachers? Why didn't anyone teach me this stuff before I walked into the classroom? There's certainly plenty of research out there supporting the use of humour to enhance teaching and learning. For example, this article from the Journal of Statistics Education Using Humor in the Introductory Statistics Course was written almost six years ago. From the article:

  • • Humor Builds Relationships and Enhances Communication
    When students talk in class (I'm going to use this one!): “What! I hear voices again. My psychiatrist told me that if I keep taking my Prozac the voices will go away.”
  • • Humor is a Stress-Reducing Tool (preparing for tests)
    If you make certain very egregious errors (for example, a negative probability), not only will you not get partial credit, but we will somehow manage to take points off of exams you are taking in other subjects. We might even take away points from courses taken in high school. In fact, one day, when your children and grandchildren are taking my class, we will take away points from their exams too! Alternatively, “Give me a probability greater than one and I will take away your car.”
  • • Humor Makes a Course More Interesting
    "Education is the only paid-for commodity regarding which, the less you provide, the happier the customer."
  • • Humor Enhances Recall of Information
    Years - some would say days - from now, students will have forgotten much of what we teach them. But they remember the humorous methods used to illustrate important points.

This is probably my favourite joke in the article:

A statistics major was completely hung over the day of his final exam. It was a true/false test, so he decided to flip a coin for the answers. The statistics professor watched the student the entire two hours as he was flipping the coin ... writing the answer ... flipping the coin ... writing the answer. At the end of the two hours, everyone else had finished the exam and left the room except for that lone student. The professor walked over and said, "Listen, I see that you did not study for this statistics test, you didn't even look at the exam questions. If you are just flipping a coin for your answers, what in the world is taking you so long?" Still flipping the coin, the student replied "Shhh! I am checking my answers!"

Humour relaxes us and helps us think better. Shouldn't something like that be a part of every curriculum and instruction class?

And speaking of Things They Should Have Taught In The Faculty Of Education, what about presentation skills? Stuff like how to use your voice, organize text and images to convey ideas, how to "work a room". Shouldn't this also be taught in Faculties of Education? Teachers are "on stage" every day, several times a day, presenting content and "working the room" to help kids learn. This seems like such a "no brainer". Does any Faculty of Education anywhere specifically teach presentation skills in the way the teacher in this video or this one (from teachers.tv in the UK) gets that help when he tried to go "From Good to Outstanding?"

In the last several years I've given a number of presentations to many different audiences. The skills I've developed have spilled over into the classroom. Compare how I taught this class last year:

to how I taught it this year:

The image in that last slideshow introduces what I think is another powerful teaching practice: metaphorical thinking. A binomial distribution is displayed graphically as a sort of bar graph called a histogram (the dogs are lined up in a way that is reminiscent of a histogram). Also, an experiment is binomial if and only if it has exactly two outcomes, typically described as "success" and "failure". Do you see this characteristic displayed in the image? My students did. But that's a post for another time.

K12 Online 2008: Amplifying Possibilities

We are pleased to announce the call for proposals for the third annual "K12 Online Conference" for educators around the world interested in the use of web 2.0 tools in classrooms and professional practice. This year's conference is scheduled for October 20-24 and October 27-31 of 2008, and will include a pre-conference keynote during the week of October 13. The conference theme for 2008 is "Amplifying Possibilities." Participation in the conference (as in the past) is entirely free. Conference materials are published in English and available for worldwide distribution and use under a Creative Commons license. Some changes in the requirements for presentations are being made this year and are detailed below. The deadline for proposal submission is June 23, 2008. Selected presentations will be announced at NECC 2008 in San Antonio, Texas, USA.


As in past years, K12 Online 2008 will feature four "conference strands," two each week. Two presentations will be published in each strand each day, Monday through Friday, so four new presentations will be available each day over the course of the two weeks. Including the pre-conference keynote, a total of 41 presentations will be published. Each twenty minute (or less) presentation will be shared online in a downloadable format and released simultaneously via the conference blog (www.k12onlineconference.org) the conference Twitter account, and the conference audio and video podcast channels. All presentations will be archived online for posterity. A total of 82 past presentations are currently available from K12 Online 2006 and K12 Online 2007. If you are planning to submit a proposal, please review archived presentations from past years to determine what you might offer that is new and builds on previous work. A variety of live events will also be planned during and following the weeks of the conference.

Week 1

Strand A: Getting Started

Everything you wanted to know about getting started with web 2.0 technologies for learning but were afraid to ask. The presentations in this strand will focus on specific, free tools for newcomers. Whether you have one classroom computer or a laptop for every student, digital technologies can provide new opportunities to connect with other learners, create new and exciting knowledge products, and engage students in an expanded learning process beyond the traditional "boundaries of the bell." Teachers first introduced to Web 2.0 tools are often unaware of the new possibilities for teaching and learning afforded by the Read/Write Web. Presentations in this strand will amplify and model what is possible in terms of pedagogy, student creation of content, and collaboration. Practical classroom implementation ideas will be emphasized. Presentations will focus more on the ways new tools can be used to engage students in learning, rather than focusing exclusively on how specific tools are used. If you've ever felt like everyone else knows more than you about teaching with technology and you need help getting started, this is the strand for you.

Strand B: Kicking It Up a Notch

You've been using blogs, wikis and other technologies for awhile but perhaps haven't seen them transform your classroom and the learning environment for your students in the ways you think they can. This strand amplifies ways new technologies can be used to transform classroom and personal learning. Rather than merely replicating traditional, analog-based learning tasks, how can digital technologies permit teacher-leaders to "infomate" learning to add greater interactivity, personal differentiation, and multi-modal exploration of curriculum topics? Fresh new approaches to using Web 2.0 tools for learning and authentic assessment will be highlighted. Presentations will explore innovative ways Web 2.0 tools can be blended together to help students create, collaborate, and share the knowledge safely on the global stage of the Internet. Maybe it's time to share your insights and experiences with your teaching community. Join these sessions to gain insights on amplifying the possibilities of learning in your classroom and/or your professional practice.

Week 2

Strand A: Prove it.

Although some teachers are excited to "amplify possibilities" using computer technologies, Web 2.0 tools, and 21st Century learning strategies in their classrooms, how do we know if these innovative instructional strategies are really working? Since information technologies and emerging brain research continue to rapidly evolve and change, it is challenging as well as vital to find current, meaningful research to under gird the learning initiatives we are using in our classrooms. What are "best practices" for teaching and learning with the new participatory media? This strand will share research results from the field that support students in using knowledge to communicate, collaborate, analyze, create, innovate, build community and solve problems. In addition, successful methods for developing and/or delivery of action research projects or research-based instruction in today's digital world will be explored. In some cases, participants may be invited to participate in ongoing or beginning research on Web 2.0 tool use, constructivist pedagogy, or other 21st Century research issues. Educational research about emerging professional development strategies, contemporary learning theory, systemic school reform, and other current themes of educational change are also appropriate for inclusion in this strand.

Help us to examine such research questions as:

  • » What does research in learning science, instructional design, informal learning, and other fields tell us about today's learner and their success?
  • » What design features must teachers incorporate into their instructional activities to support meaningful learning?
  • » What is the role of assessment in today's changing classroom? How should assessment be structured to meaningfully assess student acheivement in the context of the modern classroom?

Strand B: Leading the Change

Innovative approaches to teaching and learning using web 2.0 tools are often utilized by a limited number of "early adopter" teachers in our schools. This strand seeks to amplify ways educators in a variety of contexts are serving as constructive catalysts for broad-based pedagogic change using Web 2.0 technologies as well as student-centered, project-based approaches to learning. Presentations in this strand will both showcase successful strategies as well as amplify critical issues which must be addressed for innovative learning methods to be adopted by teachers, librarians, and administrators on a more widespread basis. These issues may include (but are not limited to) issues of copyright, fair use and intellectual property, Internet content filtering, student privacy and safety issues, administrator expectations for teacher utilization of Web 2.0 tools, pilot initiatives utilizing key Web 2.0 technologies in different content areas, and innovative ways students and teachers are providing just-in-time support as well as formal learning opportunities for each other focusing on Web 2.0 tools. Successful approaches for both large and small schools, in rural as well as urban settings, will be included. This strand will explore and amplify a menu of practical ideas for educators in diverse contexts who want to continue amplifying possibilities in our schools.


This call encourages all educators, both experienced and novice with respect to Web 2.0 learning tools, to submit proposals to present at this conference via this link. Take this opportunity to share your successes, strategies, and tips in "amplifying the possibilities” of web 2.0 powered learning in one of the four conference strands.

The deadline for proposal submissions is June 23, 2008 at midnight GMT. You will be contacted no later than July 2, 2008 regarding your proposal's status. The conveners reserve to right to reposition a presentation in another strand if they believe it is best placed elsewhere. As in past years, conveners will utilize blind review committees to evaluate all submissions.

Presentations for K12Online08 must conform to the following requirements:

  • 1. Presentations must be a single media file of twenty minutes or less in length.
  • 2. Presentations must be submitted in a downloadable and convertable file format (mp3, mov, WMV, FLV, m4a, or m4v.) Presenters wanting to use an alternative format should contact their respective strand convener in advance.
  • 3. Presentations are due two weeks prior to the week the relevant strand begins. (Week 1 presentations are due Monday, October 6, Week 2 presentations are due Monday, October 13.)
  • 4. Presentations must be submitted only one time and on time. Early submissions are welcomed! Repeat submissions (with changes and additional edits) will not be accepted. Presenters should proof carefully before submitting!
  • 5. All presentations will be shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

The following are optional but encouraged presentation elements:

  • 1. Prior to September 13th, presenters are invited to submit a "teaser" (maximum video or audio file length: 3 minutes) about their presentation. This can be any type of online artifact and does not have to be downloadable. Examples may include videos, animations, posters, audio interviews, etc.
    • » In addition to marketing the presentation, teasers can be designed to encourage and solicit community input related to the presentation topic in advance of the presentation submission deadline.
    • » View teaser examples from 2007 at http://k12online07.wikispaces.com/Teasers
  • 2. Supplementary materials supporting presentations are welcomed. These can be wikis with supporting material links, linked examples of student projects, school district exemplary initiatives, social bookmarking collections, and/or other related content.
  • 3. Follow-up projects and/or live interaction opportunities for conference presentations which further amplify the possibilities of the presentation topic may be included. (This can include sharing and building of content prior to, during and after the conference.)

As you draft your proposal, you may wish to consider the presentation topics listed below which were suggested in the comments on the K12 Online Conference Blog:

  • » Special needs education
  • » Creative Commons, Intellectual Property, Copyright and Fair Use
  • » Student voices
  • » Community involvement
  • » Games in education
  • » Specific ideas, tips, mini lessons centered on pedagogical use of web 2.0 tools
  • » Overcoming institutional inertia and resistance
  • » Aligning Web 2.0 and other projects to national standards
  • » Getting your message across
  • » How Web 2.0 can assist those with disabilities
  • » ePortfolios
  • » Classroom 2.0 activities at the elementary level
  • » Teacher/peer collaboration
  • » Authentic assessment
  • » Overcoming content filtering issues
  • » Navigating "open web" versus "closed web" publishing of student work

Prospective presenters are reminded that the audience of the K12 Online Conference is global in nature and diverse in their educational context. For this reason presentations and presentation materials which address issues from a variety of perspectives are welcomed.


Acceptance decisions will be made based on RELEVANCE, SIGNIFICANCE, ORIGINALITY, QUALITY, and CLARITY. Borrowing from the COSL 2008 call for proposals:

A submission is RELEVANT when
⇒ it directly addresses the conference and strand themes

A submission is SIGNIFICANT when
⇒ it raises and discusses issues important to improving the effectiveness and/or sustainability of 21st Century teaching and learning efforts, and
⇒ its contents can be broadly (globally) disseminated and understood

A submission is ORIGINAL when
⇒ it addresses a new problem or one that hasn't been studied in depth,
⇒ it has a novel combination of existing research results which promise new insights, and / or
⇒ it provides a perspective on problems different from those explored before

A submission is of HIGH QUALITY when
⇒ existing literature is drawn upon, and / or
⇒ claims are supported by sufficient data, and / or
⇒ an appropriate methodology is selected and properly implemented, and / or
⇒ limitations are described honestly

A submission is CLEARLY WRITTEN when
⇒ it is organized effectively, and / or
⇒ the English is clear and unambiguous, and / or
⇒ it follows standard conventions of punctuation, mechanics, and citation, and / or
⇒ the readability is good


The first presentation in each strand will kick off with a keynote by a well known educator who is distinguished and knowledgeable in the context of their strand. Keynoters will be announced shortly.


Darren Kuropatwa is currently Department Head of Mathematics at Daniel Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is known internationally for his ability to weave the use of online social tools meaningfully and concretely into his pedagogical practice. Darren's professional blog is called A Difference. He will convene Getting Started.

Dean Shareski is a Digital Learning Consultant for Prairie South School Division in Saskatchewan, Canada. Dean is an advocate for the use of social media in the classroom. To that end he works with teachers and students in exploring ways to make learning relevant, authentic and engaging. He also is a part time sessional lecturer for the University of Regina. He is celebrating his 20th year as an educator. Dean blogs at Ideas and Thoughts. Dean will convene Kicking It Up A Notch.

Sheryl Nusbaum-Beach, a 20-year educator, has been a classroom teacher, charter school principal, district administrator, and digital learning consultant. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty member teaching preservice teachers at The College of William and Mary (Virginia, USA), where she is in the dissertation phase of completing her doctorate in educational planning, policy and leadership. As the cofounder of the Powerful Learning Practice Network she helps schools and teachers from around the world use community as a powerful tool for systemic change. You can find out more on her website at www.21stcenturycollaborative.com. She will convene Prove It.

Wesley Fryer is an educator, author, digital storyteller and change agent. He summarizes his ongoing work with educators and students in social media environments with the statement, "I'm here for the learning revolution." His blog, “Moving at the Speed of Creativity” was selected as the 2006 “Best Learning Theory Blog” by eSchoolnews and Discovery Education. Social media sites to which Wes contributes are listed on http://claimid.com/wfryer. Wes will convene Leading the Change.


If you have any questions about any part of this call for proposals, please contact one of us:

  • Darren Kuropatwa: dkuropatwa {at} gmail {dot} com

  • Dean Shareski: shareski{at} gmail{dot} com

  • Sheryl Nusbaum-Beach: snbeach {at} cox {dot} net

  • Wesley Fryer: wesfryer {at} pobox {dot} com

Please duplicate this post and distribute it far and wide across the blogosphere. Feel free to republish it on your own blog (actually, we'd really like people to do that ;-) ) or link back to this post (published simultaneously on all our blogs).

Conference Tag: k12online08

Assessment and Rote Learning

David Truss has a great post called Assessment & Rote Learning: Math Conundrums. I tried to leave a comment. I discovered I'm passionate about what Dave had to say. The blog, or my cocomment plugin, borked (yes, that's a technical term) and wouldn't let me leave the comment so I decided to share it here. You may like to read Dave's post before continuing with this.

Breathtaking post, or was it three? ;-)


I did the same exercise with my dept. We also had the same vastly differing results you did. At a provincial in-service about 9 or 10 years back I participated in the same exercise using real student generated work. Results varied from around 33% to 80%. This is one facet of Academe's Dirty Little Secret. Anyway, in my dept. we've been looking at how we assess all the content in all the courses we teach; one course at a time, one unit at a time. We're trying to develop a consistent approach to assessment at least within our building. We'll be "at it" for a while yet.

Basic Skills

Fluent knowledge and recall of basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts are essential for ANY student to experience success in math. I'm on the same page you are Dave.

A grade 9 student, who struggles (mightily) with her multiplication facts, and I were talking about this last week. As I was trying to help her I asked why she thinks I feel it so important for her to become fluent in her recall of the multiplication table:

"I know, I know, some day I might not have a calculator and I might need to multiply two numbers."

[Oy! Who tells kids this stuff? And do they really believe that? -- I mean the adults, not the kids. I know the kids don't believe that.]

"No. That's not why. You'll always be able to get a calculator if you need to multiply a bunch of numbers. That's not the reason. It's that you need to know the language of math so you can join the conversation."

"If your teacher is trying to teach you why multiplying pairs of negative numbers always have a positive result, or why, when we divide fractions, we 'multiply by the reciprocal' they're going to talk about stuff like 7x8 and assume you know it's 56 and go on to discuss some deeper ideas. If you're hung up on 7x8, need to pull out a calculator, you're going to miss the entire conversation. Your brain will be back 5 steps while everyone else is talking about this other stuff. By the time you figure out what's going on you won't know what's going on. You'll feel lost and confused and fall farther behind."

"Why do I need to know math anyway?"

"For the same reason you need to know how to read. Because it's a fundamental way that humans communicate with each other and understand the world around them. If you can read but you can't understand mathematics then there will be giant tracts of things happening in the world around you that you'll never understand."

[Whew! Went on a bit of a rant there. I'm going to get a cup of tea ... Cheers Dave!]

Photo Credit: Conundrum by flickr user wyld stallyn