Thursday, June 14, 2007

Let's Go Back to Kindergarten

There are days when I want to go back to Kindergarten. I want to paint. I want to build things with blocks and Legos. I want to make inventions. I want to learn about about butterflies and then make one out of construction paper and see if I can make it fly just like a real butterfly. I want to use my imagination. I want to learn just because its fun to learn. I miss those days.

If you get a chance to observe a Kindergarten class sometime, it won't take long for you to sense the energy in the air. There's an excitement in the room because learning is not about working to get a good grade, learning is fun. Somewhere between kindergarten and high school our students seem to lose this enthusiasm. The model of learning changes from one of creativity and exploration to one of listen, memorize, and regurgitate.

Dr. Mitchel Resnick, the inventor of Lego Mindstorms, would like to bring back the Kindergarten model of education. He emphasizes the need for creativity in a world where our students seem to lack the skills needed to solve problems. In a society where creative ideas and solutions are sought after and rewarded, our school systems seemed focused on teaching to the test.

Last month, Alan November interviewed Dr. Resnick and posted it on his blog. (Go to Alan November's blog to hear the interview.) Dr. Resnick discussed the work being done with his Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT where students learn by being creative. They solve problems by inventing robots using Mindstorms and Crickets. They also create and share their own video games online using an ingenious programming "language" called Scratch.

If you have a little extra time, I strongly encourage you to watch Dr. Resnick's lecture given on May 22, 2006 at the MIT Museum.

"Sowing the Seeds for a More Creative Society"
There are two ways to view the video...
1) Download the lecture from iTunes. (FREE 146MB)
2) Stream it from the MIT Museum site. (Requires Real Player)

The video is a little over one hour. The first half is the lecture, followed by a question and answer session.

Friday, June 01, 2007

FREE Inspiration

Writers use them for brainstorming. Scientists use them for solving problems and organizing information. Whether you call it a word web, a concept map, or just a bunch of little boxes connected with arrows, the process writing down concepts, figuring out how they are related, and connecting them together can be a valuable teaching tool.

Two of the most well-known software tools for doing this are Inspiration and its primary grade companion, Kidspiration. These programs are great, but they are not cheap. In fact school licensing for these can be almost as expensive as licensing Microsoft Office.

Now, finally, there is a FREE alternative to Inspiration. It’s called Cmap Tools. You can download it from their web site. ( Mac, Windows, and Linux versions are available.

When you install it and run it for the first time, you will be asked to create a username and password. This is required so later on you can share your concept maps with others or even set up a collaborative concept map that can be edited by multiple users. Even if you don’t want to do this, you still need to create a username and password in order to use the product.

If you’re used to using Inspiration, you may find the Cmap Tools does things a little differently, but those differences are not major. You can’t do “rapid fire” concept maps and there is no clip art included in the software. You can add images, links, and annotations. You can also link to Word documents, videos, and other Cmap files.

To get a good idea of what the process of creating a concept map is like, take a look at this tutorial video they have created. Creating Concepts and Propositions (requires Quicktime)

They also have other tutorial videos that explain how to use the software:
Adding Resources
Introduction to the Views Window
How to Create a Folder

The one thing that Cmap Tools seems to be lacking is the ability to export your concept map as an outline that can be opened in Microsoft Word. There is an “outline view” that can be exported as text (.txt) but the text does not have the traditional outline formatting (I, II, III, A, B, C, etc.)

On the plus side, your concept maps can be exported as jpegs and as web pages (html). You can also upload your map to one of their public Cmap servers (I have yet to try this) and make it viewable to anyone with a web browser. Once it is online, your map is given a unique web address (URL). Anyone with a web browser can access it, and anyone with Cmap Tools can be invited to contribute and edit it.

I’m already brainstorming on ways this software could be used with students. Here are a couple of ideas:

“What’s the Connection?”
Use Cmap Tools to create a collection of terms. Save the file. Have students open the file, look at the terms, and figure out how they are related. It’s up to them to move the terms around and link them together with arrows using the correct propositions.

“Family Tree”
Have students start by typing their name as the first concept. Then they add their relatives around them as different concepts. Finally they need to add links stating each person’s relationship to the student (brother, sister, cousin, uncle) as well as their relationships to each other.

I still think Kidspiration is a valuable tool for primary grades and would not want to replace it, but I could definitely use Cmap Tools with older students – grades 5 and up.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

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