Posts Tagged ‘Constructivist’

Notes for April 7 Webinar – Play, Think, Learn

April 8th, 2011 Comments off

It was in the late 70’s and early 80’s when Atari came out with the Lunar Lander and Asteroids games. I was “stoked” that these games represented an environment for understanding inertia and the other laws of motion, and wondered how I could bring that into my middle school classroom. But they were…games, not lessons, so it didn’t happen. Now that so many Maine 7-12 classrooms are 1:1 and kids have very sophisticated gaming systems, that type of environment has become almost second nature to our students.

So, what is it about gaming that engages the gamer? Our own Ruben Puentadura has offered a whole bunch of podcasts available from the Maine DOE iTunes site entitled “Game and Learn.” He suggests the motivators are these:

Cause and Effect – immediate feedback for effort, seeing results of action
Long Term Winning vs Short Term Gains – Tactics, strategy and problem solving
Order from Chaos – Isolating variables
Complex Systems Behaviors – Systems thinking
Obstacles Become Motivation – Accepting challenges and taking risks

If we look over the standards and pedagogy of successful science classrooms, these same motivators are definitely learning goals, as well.

So how can we leverage the tools that we have to enhance the learning of science? And, for that matter, what tools exist on the MLTI MacBook that can apply that leverage?

To begin with, Games Launcher offers Wolfquest, which has been covered briefly in another webinar. Also, ME Explorer has been explained in a webinar and a series of iTunes podcasts. And we could consider the student interaction with Data Studio and Logger Pro to address some of the motivators mentioned above.

Two applications on the MLTI image from Concord Consortium have been included on the image this year that pack a giant science punch by incorporating the immersive environments and concretizing of abstract concepts found in the gaming world. The Concord Consortium folder may be the most powerful and underutilized resource center for science that teachers need to discover.

Geniquest starts off with a fairly simple and engaging premise of breeding dragons…yes – dragons. Students move on to investigate more and more complex genetic concepts that build an amazing learning progression that develop a deeper understanding of the big ideas of heredity.

Molecular Workbench is both a library containing hundreds of models and activities in chemistry, biology,  and physics and it is also a toolbox for building your own custom-made activities with a good how-to manual.

Another MLTI tool that has remained fairly dormant is NetLogo. It, too, has an extensive library of models that support deeper understanding of science concepts through inquiry and interactivity. The models are set up using the mathematical constructs of various phenomena, stripping away some of the fuzziness of the real world, so users can focus on the basic interactions. My personal favorite is “Wolf-Sheep Predation” that models the predator-prey relationship. Students can adjust variables like initial populations, reproduction rates and energy accumulation to see what effects become apparent. The results are displayed in pictures, graphs, and numbers, following the good practice of multiple representations.

OK, those are a few of the tools on the MLTI image. What about teachers searching the web for appropriate standards-based activities that are appropriate for their curricula? There are a couple of websites that collect and review science resources and align them with learning goals, National Science Education Standards and Project 2061 Benchmarks. One of the is PRISMS from Maine Math and Science Alliance. Another is the National Science Digital Library Science Literacy Strand Map.

A visit to PRISMS gives the user a choice of science topics. A click will take you to a page that lists a set of Learning Goals. Pick one, and you will see the review that covers  information that parallels lesson planning, and a link to the resource. You get to see the strengths and weakness and suggestions for the teacher to integrate the activity into a lesson. I would promote PRISMS as a way for middle school science teachers to construct well crafted, technology-rich units that offer deeper understanding than textbooks alone.

The NSDL Science Literacy Strand Map uses the maps from the AAAS – Project 2061 Atlas of Science Literacy. The Atlas was designed to map out the ideas and skills that lead to literacy in science, mathematics, and technology might develop from kindergarten through 12th grade. NSDL has made the Atlas intereactive, allowing users to choose a major content area, pick a subtopic, and focus in on a particular content topic. Then the map is shown on the screen, with lines linking the specific 9-12 standards, showing the relationship among them and the progression from K to 12 of the content topic. If you click on one of the boxes, you get a list of links to resources about it, as well as references from NSES and Benchmarks. Also included on the map is a tab that opens up to explain the various student misconceptions about the chosen topic. Science teachers and departments would benefit greatly from using the Strand Map to design curriculum that aligns with standards and is sensitive to K-12 learning progressions.

Second Life (SL) and other virtual worlds deserve a good look, too. Scilands in SL offers a area that has islands devoted to NASA, NOAA, Exploratorium, genetics, astronomy, and many other science related themes. In many cases, the environment offers novel and interesting ways to interact with science concepts, like walking through an animal cell and learning about the different organelles. EduSim and Science Sim are a couple of other virtual worlds.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention PhET as a great resource for ready made, interactive science activities. Users can choose from an amazing number of java applets that can be accessed on the web, or downloaded to be included in NoteShare notebooks or teacher web pages. All of the resources are great, and many include a full lesson plan that can be adapted to individual lessons and units.

Good classroom practice demands that any of these resources need to exist in an appropriate learning context. As a teacher, you are responsible for addressing a number of factors to ensure that learning is taking place. Think of the questions you ask in a lesson plan:

What standards are being taught/learned?
What are the prerequisites needed?
How can the activity be differentiated appropriately?
Will this be part of an introduction, practice, homework, extension, or elaboration?
Will the students engage as individuals, small groups, or whole class?
What is your role as a teacher, facilitator, or Socratic coach?
How will the learning be assessed?

"Seeing," Self-Realization and Social Networking – More on Making Meaning

July 15th, 2010 Comments off
Who Am I? from licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license (

Who Am I? licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license from

Two conversations I have had lately have really made me think about students, teaching, technology and 21st Century skills. Added to that, a number of my former students have friended me on Facebook and have talked about what they remember about my class. Basically, my thoughts have been directed to the difference between what we, as teachers, want them to remember, and what they actually remember. Then, I am led to ponder how that melds with the specific memories that lead to success in their lives. Deep, huh? So, once again, I am on the trail of making meaning.

The first conversation occurred in a grocery store with a private college math professor with whom I collaborated with in the 90’s, helping teachers understand more about fractals, chaos, and dynamical systems. We talked about how students are coming into class more prepared to visualize complex concepts, and how a few of his graduates have made a business out of creating incredible visualizations. One example he shared with me was based on the confluence of Obama’s inauguration and cell phones. The first, simple visualization dealt with looking at the national map and a kind of dynamic graph that showed the number of outgoing cell phone calls at any particular time. The map had all these jiggling little points that were cool to look at, and then the “bloom” of calls being made from the Washington D.C. area over the days of the inauguration. Pretty neat, and the results were all to be expected. Then his eyes twinkled as he described the second visualization – the same national map, but the little jiggly points represented the destination localities of those same cell phone calls. Wouldn’t that animation have been valuable to Political Action Committees and lobbyists! I thought about this as an example of how our students may “see” beyond our ken, and how we need to recognize that visual literacy is crucial part of literacy in general in the 21st Century.

The second conversation was during a family gathering talking about all our children as young adults and how they have found their niches. Not all of them enjoyed school, feeling as if they were overlooked because they weren’t necessarily the kids who were good at “doing school.” Conversely, many of their teachers were not skilled at recognizing students as individuals with different interests, talents, and abilities. But these kids grew up, found jobs, and raised families in spite of the way they were taught. When we tried to analyze their successes, we came to the conclusion that they were able to look at problems in a methodical way, and they were mostly self-taught. Yes, learning to read and do math were important – don’t get me wrong. But we agreed that their scores on common assessments generally made less difference to their success than their experiences in authentic learning. To them, learning how to learn made all the difference, and they love to learn in their own milieu. What helped them the most was their ability to adapt – a very important skill in the world of today and the future. I have yet to be convinced that most of the assessments given nowadays to gauge student achievement actually measure the skills needed in the world they will inherit. I thought about this as an example of how universal design and the ability of technology to individualize will help today’s students to show their interests and talents in a way that was not readily available last generation and prepare them for their roles in the 21st Century.

Then, there have been my Facebook conversations with former students as “friends.” I would agree that it has been a small, self-selected sample, but it has been both a pleasant and provocative experience to “hear” them. They have shared a bit of their journeys through life and I can’t help feeling a little pride in having had a small part in their successes. When I think back to my interaction with most of them and their classes, I realize that usually they had “permission” to be themselves and they took full advantage of it. Then I recognized that Facebook actually promotes a similar kind of self-realization. Web 2.0 social networking can educe personality and individualism in ways that old-school education often couldn’t. What users choose to reveal about themselves is a reflection of what they think about themselves. This kind of reflection and connection with others can lead to a higher level of personal interaction that has the potential of enhancing learning as individuals and in groups. So, finally, I thought about this as another example of how we, as teachers, need to appreciate how the world outside of school has changed, and how we need to adjust our practice accordingly to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

So, to take all these random thoughts and apply them to making memories and meaning, let’s try to consolidate them. 1) This generation of students can visualize in ways we might not have appreciated before, so we can try to take advantage of that “open door” to their learning to help them remember what we think is important. 2) Our students are definitely distinct individuals, with different experiences, talents and learning styles. Providing them with relevant avenues for learning and assessment will allow for better retention of processes and content. 3) The potential for self-realization that social networking provides is important to include in the 21st Century classroom as another avenue for constructionist teaching and learning.

Making Meaning – Presenting Reality – 2/4/10

February 5th, 2010 Comments off

Making Meaning – Presenting Reality: Data, Spreadsheets, and Databases

Recordings for the sessions are available here:



What is/are Data?

I used to teach my middle school students that data are observable facts.  In most cases, data are results of measurement as one form of observation. I guess you could state that these would be quantitative representations of reality. On the other hand, data can represent qualitative observations of reality as well.

If we were to get deeply philosophical about data, we could look at how data are related to information and knowledge. In this way, we can look at levels of meaning. Data all by themselves really have no meaning – they just exist, regardless of whether they have been measured or observed.

Data that has been given some relativity or relevance by an observer or collector becomes information. To provide context think of how the word information is used in terms like: information processor, information technology, information desk. In each case data are given some kind of context and that context provides meaning. As educators, we try to help students find that meaning from data. Think of the difference between an almanac and a textbook. An almanac is a collection of data, a textbook by itself offers information.

To go one step beyond, to reach the level of knowledge, it is necessary to provide avenues of larger context, even context that doesn’t exist yet. How sets of information exist as links to each other and how those links can be retained in context provides a much broader and deeper meaning as knowledge. Again, as educators in an inquiry-based classroom, we provide opportunities for students to gather both data and information, find the relationships, and incorporate it all into knowledge. Think of using an almanac to get the data on an area’s climate, and compare different area climates for a set of information about world climate. By relating those sets of information about climates to special features about the areas, you can construct knowledge of biomes.

All this explanation helps us to understand that there is a continuum of abstraction that reaches from the lowest level of abstraction, data; through a higher level, information; to the highest level, knowledge.

Entering Data

So, as teachers, we try to do what we can to help the students derive meaning from data. But first, we have to get that data. So, let’s take a look at what we can do to collect data.

Of course, there is the old observe and record method. Just look and take notes on paper. We can always use a computer to log our notes, as well.  NoteShare can do this very well, whether the data is in text, numerical, image or audio form.One method that can save a lot of trouble and focus on the data we want folks to work with, would be to fill out forms. You know, the old Last Name First routine. Probably most of the forms you filled out were on paper, but the data on those paper forms probably made their way into a computer somewhere to become part of a database.

You could always type the data directly into a spreadsheet, cell by cell. Or you could employ probes or sensors to get immediate real-time data into some form of collector, be it spreadsheet, graph, or database.


Way back when in prehistoric times, 1980, VisiCalc was the killer app. It was one of the progenitors of the personal computer revolution. It was simple – a ledger type format that allowed mass formulaic calculations and showed graphs. Wow! Now the idea has evolved into an integral part of office suites of applications, like Excel in MS Office, Numbers in iWork, and the like, such as NeoOffice and OpenOffice. There’s even a spreadsheet in Google Apps.

Spreadsheets incorporate data entry, either manually or by forms. Remember, these data have no meaning unto themselves. Most good spreadsheets allow you to design forms for users to input data so they won’t be put off by the look and expanse of a spreadsheet – sort of “the man behind the curtain” thing. In a way, the given choices of data to enter add some meaning and point the way to information.

Data can be manipulated in spreadsheets, too. Even the most rudimentary spreadsheets have many formulas that allow you to play with your data in a meaningful way. This is another example of the transition from data to information. The relationships among the data add meaning.

Finally, the data can be analyzed, as well. People who are lucky enough to look at numbers and see trends can glean a lot just by looking at the resultant values. However, spreadsheets can take those results and add even more meaning by turning those values into graphs and charts. Visualization helps to lead the way to knowledge and makes the extraction of meaning easier.

Science Example

Let’s take a look at an example of spreadsheets in science. First we see the blank template for data entry. Next, students visit the US Naval Observatory website to get sunrise and sunset data for their locale. They then enter the data into the spreadsheet. So far – it’s just data with no meaning yet.

Next, the formulae in the spreadsheet calculate the length of sunlight for the dates selected. A sharp person can see the trend in the resultant values. Next, a bar graph that displays the duration of the daylight in a visual form allows students to see what is happening. This is information derived from the data.

The final steps would be to provide context that leads to knowledge. That context could be lecture, comparing graphs, or other forms of synthesis.

So, spreadsheets present opportunities to deal with reality at a number of different levels and can make meaning for students.

Probes, Sensors and real time data entry

A very powerful way to leap from data to information to knowledge is exemplified by two applications on the MLTI MacBook: Data Studio and Logger Pro. The key feature of applications like them is using probes or sensors to monitor a system. The probe continually reads the data it is designed for (temperature, distance, force, etc.) and enters them into a spreadsheet or graph.

The graph instantly relates time and the data collected and displays that relationship. Multiple sets of data can be monitored at once, like temperature, air pressure, humidity, and altitude to immediately show how they might be related. Instant meaning! Both companies supply learning experiences with their probeware and software, usually in bundles, and even ways to construct your own activities.

Here’s an example of a “workbook” from PASCO. Teachers can put together workbooks they way they might use a word processor. These workbooks provide for forms for data entry, along with real time data collection from the probeware.

Databases and Management

In general, you can think of a database as a large collection of data, sorted by records and fields. Think of a bank of filing cabinets, with file folders (fields) that contain data (records.)

There are thousands, if not millions, of databases floating around the internet and on company servers. They are very useful, but only with some form of data entry and retrieval. Most folks use some kind of database management software (DBMS) to get reports that extract data in a form that is meaningful and useful. Again, providing a context to observe the data.

Most of us will not be creating databases, but we can all access incredible amounts of data from databases in our district or on the web. Your school most likely uses a Student Information System, like Powerschool or Infinite Campus. These are ways to interact with databases. You have probably entered data into the system, and retrieved information that you wanted.

Those of you who use MARVEL! (and I hope that is a great number of you) are interacting with a collection of databases in ways that are helpful in your students’ and your own research and information retrieval.

PASCO’s MyWorld is a Geographic Information System (GIS) application that loads a database into the system and relates the data to geographic data to help visualize how place is related to data or phenomena. ESRI’s Arc Explorer is a more widely used GIS application and is available as a free download.

There are all sorts of databases for all sorts of data:

like this one from the US Census Bureau

or this one from the CIA (spooky, huh?) for information like an almanac

or this one from OECD for education with a global spin:

or this one from NOAA

Other Resources

Using Numbers to investigate the meaning of Pi

Daylight lesson for Excel

Pasco resources page

Logger Pro Labs

Arc Explorer

Activities for MyWorld

Making Meaning: Dec. 17 Webinar Notes

December 19th, 2009 Comments off

This webinar was an introduction to modeling and simulation tools that are web-based, free downloads, or a part of the MLTI image. Future webinars will take a deeper look at these tools, but in the meantime you may want to download some of them and give them a try. These are the tools that were discussed or mentioned, organized according to the three modes of Bruner‘s theory of constructivism.




As you explore these tools and think about possible classroom uses, please share  your ideas with us in the comments section.

Representing Reality (11/12/09 webinar)

November 15th, 2009 Comments off

Notes from Webinar 11/12/2009

Afternoon session recording:

Evening session recording:

Representing Reality

Models & Simulations in the Classroom

When I was working with Commodore in 1980, I read Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert. (He’s the godfather of MLTI.) His ideas made me think deeply about the potential of computers, After all, he worked with Piaget. He taught folks how to program by first learning how to juggle, showing how simple steps can lead to complex outcomes. He also thought that learning should be “hard fun.” However, the idea that really made me think was the capacity of the computer to “concretize the abstract” – pushing the formal operations stage.

Alan Kay realized the potential as well in 1990:

“…[the computer] is a medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium, including media that cannot exist physically … it has degrees of freedom for representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely investigated.” (Sunrise Notes Number 2, June 1990, p.29)

Gary Stager restated this in his article “Cut the Cord – How Networks are Making Schools Stupid” for the December 2001 issue of District Administration:

“We have forgotten what computers do best. They make things, facilitate communication and support the social construction of knowledge. Computers mediate a conversation between the user and herself. They concretize the abstract. On the other hand, most school applications of the net are curriculum or teacher-centered – designed to transfer information to unsuspecting or unwilling children.”

So now we have the potential to reach out to the abstract and interact with it

What are the implications? By using models and simulations, students can watch changes over larger (or tinier) areas or time spans than they could have observed personally. Examples might include weather and geological phenomena, or atomic and molecular interactions. By using simulations based on accepted models, students can interact with them and observe the effects of their interactions. In many cases, simulations in science can be used to “do” labs that might be unsafe or unavailable, like dissections or chemistry labs.

Before we go any further we should probably investigate what models and simulations are, and how they differ from reality.


Definition from

“Graphical, mathematical (symbolic), physical, or verbal representation or simplified version of a concept, phenomenon, relationship, structure, system, or an aspect of the real world.” 

If we boil the definition down we can see 3 important ideas: Representation, simplified, real world. In many ways, it is the simplification that can give meaning to a model, focusing on particular concepts or meaning.

But we are constantly making our own mental or conceptual models as we deal with the real world, and try to make sense of how it works. Because we are often limited in our observations or perceptions, we are prone to misconceptions. Allowing students to observe accurate models helps to correct those misconceptions


Good learning simulations are based on accepted models. They enable teachers to efficiently deal with complex information by immersing learners in realistic situations which allow them to “learn by doing”. These simulations provide valuable experiential learning by enabling users to practice the tasks they need to master and experience the results of their actions in a safe and supportive environment. They vary in their complexity and interactions and again depend on variables. Simulations do not give a perfect set of real world variables, because the real world is “fuzzy,” with random and chaotic factors.

Perhaps the most powerful pedagogical implications might be that the learning becomes student-centered and inquiry-based. They provide an opportunity to experience phenomena to replace their misconceptions, leading to an even stronger conceptual construct.

Oregon Trail flash – Online version, for those of you who remember the old Apple IIe simulation.Many schools have expanded the experience to have students roleplay, write diaries and build models of Conestoga Wagons.

Do I have a right? – A simulation where you are part of a law firm. Clients come in with scenarios that may or may not be covered by the Bill of Rights. You research and let them know whether they have a case.

FrogutsVirtual dissection of a frog. Schools can purchase site licenses.

Circuit Construction Kit – Use a toolkit to build circuits and test them. Good inquiry – part of a whole panoply of simulations from PhET. 

Virtual Lab – Simulations of chemical reactions with selected substances.

SimCity A classic complex simulation, SimCity was actually one of the requirements for National Board Certification for a few years, to help teachers understand another way to learn.


Since the model or simulation is a simplified representation of the real world, it is important to acknowledge the assumptions behind the model. The real world has many different variables, and designers pick which ones to include in their models. 

NetLogo is an example of building models and simulations and playing with the variables. It is powerful, utilitarian, but teachers would have to design appropriate curriculum around a model or simulation. NetLogo includes an information tab to explain the “so what?” and “how” of the model, and a tab to look at the source code, too (to play with the underlying assumptions.)

Net Logo – Wolf Sheep PredationWith this model from the library, students can observe the classic predator/prey relationship, and then use sliders to “play” with variables like reproduction rates, energy gains, and amount of food.

With any instructional design, a teacher must decide whether the chosen simulation is being used for introduction, concept development, skill building, reinforcement or extension. Another factor to consider is time…as with any inquiry-based activity, a teacher must decide how deep a conceptual understanding must go. As always, the question rests on the goals of teaching and learning in your school and classroom. 

EcoBeaker Maine Explorer was developed with his in mind. Here is the Maine DOE iTunesU site with podcasts from EcoScienceWorks:

EcoScienceWorks iTunes U site (Maine Department of Education):

Topic Resources:

Online Westward version of Oregon Trail

Old Oregon Trail flash version from Apple IIe

Westward Ho!

Lewis and Clark

Our Courts Game page

Froguts home

Simulations from PhET

NetLogo Home

TPACK wiki

TPACK and its relation to SAMR – presentation by Dr. Ruben Puentadura

Maine Department of Education iTunesU site – many resources


FreeCiv – a free “Civilization” clone

Pithy Quotes 

Simulation: “…techniques which aim to provide the student with a highly simplified reproduction of part of a real or imaginary world”.

van Ments, M., The Effective Use of Role Play: A Handbook for Teachers & Trainers. Revised ed. 1989, New York: Nichols Publishing. 186.

“…the aim is to recreate or represent in a limited time in the classroom particular situations which exist in the world outside…often using a computer program which incorporates the model on which the simulation is based.”

Reynolds, M. (1994) Groupwork in Education and Training Ideas in Practice, London: Kogan Page, pp18-19.

Simulations are “…one of the most effective ways to promote deep conceptual understanding of the real world”.

Peter Miller, Christina Smart, and Jacqui Nicol, Economics Centre of the Learning and Teaching Support Network (UK)

“Placing a student in a simulated environment means they become involved. They view their experiences in a personal way…. From this they gain an attachment that can be shaped into a true learning experience.”

Rick Effland, Maricopa Community College

“Simulations can be a powerful education tool. The problem is that using simulations in education is different from “reality” and that simulations effect the user.”

Kevin Cox, Simulations in Education, Web Tools Newsletter, 30th July 1999