Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Groundhog Day: Interdisciplinary Lessons

Source: Visual.ly-Groundhog Day
You always know what season it is when you walk through most schools around the country. They aren't much different from department stores in that respect. Since our students enjoyed looking at infographics about Halloween, we decided to change not only our bulletin boards and book displays, but also our infographics, too. The Groundhog Day infographic from Visual.ly provides a colorful overview of the data surrounding this annual event, including Punxsutawney Phil's namesake, the shadow stats, and the number of people who gather to celebrate this festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, every February 2.

So how much ground could a groundhog hog? Well, as it turns out, there is a lot of information to use in connection with this event that can transform geography, math, or science lessons into an engaging way for students to use maps, make predictions, calculate percentages, or look at weather changes. You might even be able to throw in a little life science to find out what the difference is between a marmot and a groundhog.

Source: National Post
The infographic Large Rodents Predict Future from the Canadian National Post uses a map of North America marked with the groundhog locations and predictions from 2011. This visualization can be used with students on a basic level to identify provinces and states or to tally the number of times the groundhog saw or didn’t see his shadow. Compare the information in this infographic with the National Climate Data Center (NCDC) maps of temperature change in February and March of the same year with older students. Have them try to identify any correlation between temperature and groundhog predictions.

The NCDC website, which is part of the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also provides other data on temperature fluctuations from 1988 – 2011, and the table from Wikipedia shows Groundhog Day predictions from 2008 - 2011 by the groundhog's name and location. Any of these charts make good teaching tools to reinforce the skills of understanding and reading tables for information and data.

Source: National Climate Data Center
For fun facts, the official website of Punxsutawney Phil has a history about Groundhog Day with a roster of events surrounding it. Phil has his own page on the Weather Discovery Center website as well.

Source: Groundhog Day
Who knew that Phil tweets, too? Follow the Inner Circle on Twitter. They tweet to carry on the tradition while taking care of Phil @GroundhogClub. This adds another layer to the learning by bringing in social media and pop culture. Communication and marketing techniques allow for a nice connection to teaching media literacy and the art of selling an idea. Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania stands to make quite a bit of money on tourism from this annual event that draws over 40,000 people. Heck, begining in 2010, anyone who couldn't make the event in Pennsylvania could text Phil for his prediction. Talk about marketing -- to keep up with all things groundhog, sign up for the eNewsletter. As if that's not enough, check out Phil's Facebook page and YouTube videos as well. Even Phil has a PLN!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

We Think, Therefore, We Design

On Sunday we had the privilege of spending the day with Edward Tufte. At his ET Modern studio in Chelsea, New York, the pioneer in data visualization walked us through the best practices in presenting ideas and creating graphics.

Source: Edward Tufte
Modest and shrewd, Tufte shared a panoply of images during the far-reaching session. Our initial impression was that Tufte's depth of scholarship is unmatched. His no-nonsense critiques and depth of scientific knowledge certainly validated his status as the guru of information design.

Source: Edward Tufte
Our even larger take-away was that good design carries an inherent logic. The content is key. It determines the visual display. As we tell our students, "content first, pretty second."

As K-12 educators, we recognized several valuable teaching concepts. First, any lesson or student tool should be constructed to enable understanding. The standards of design should proceed directly from thinking. As Tufte stressed, "the thinking directs the showing, and the showing supports the thinking."

Source: Edward Tufte

In addition, Tufte emphasized several criteria to guide the visualization of data. These Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design can be applied to any presentation, project, or visual aid. They reinforce critical thinking. The six principles are also good ground rules for us as teachers. When we create lessons or materials for class, we should keep in mind these benchmarks (quoted from Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte, Graphics Press, 2006):
  1. "Show comparisons, contrasts, differences." (p.127)
  2. "Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systematic structure." (p.128) 
  3. "Show multivariate data; that is, show more than 1 or 2 variables." (p.130) 
  4. "Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams." (p.131) 
  5. "Thoroughly describe the evidence, provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point out relevant issues." (p.133)
  6. "Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of their content." (p.134)
Source: Edward Tufte
If you have the opportunity to take one of Tufte's courses as he travels the country, we recommend that you take the plunge. We also encourage you to investigate any of Tufte's four seminal books on information analytics. They are each worth the price, and they will inform even the most well-informed mind with their keen insights and stunning visuals.

For information about Tufte's personal design studio in Manhattan, check out his ET Modern homepage. For discussion boards about artistic and scientific imaging, check out his ET Notebooks.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Teaching With Twitter Visualizations

Twitter has evolved a long way from the pop fetish of self-absorbed celebrities. Now, Twitter is on the leading edge of breaking news, sharing resources, and inspiring educators. As a teacher, if you have not yet explored the possibilities of Twitter in professional development, check out our earlier post about "10 Ways Twitter Has Made Better Teachers." Many class lessons now use Twitter feeds as core tools in research and communication. This comprehensive write-up by Tina Barseghian of MindShift, for example, offers "28 Creative Ideas for Teaching With Twitter."

Source: A World Of Tweets
More and more designers are developing clever, graphic ways to interact with Twitter. These visualizations can be utilized as teaching tools themselves. One benefit of these visualizations is that they offer spatial adjacency in considering more information within one visual field. In other words, they remove the cognitive impediment of a linear, scrolling Twitter feed. Edward Tufte notes that "spatial adjacency greatly reduces the memory problems associated with making comparisons of small amounts of information stacked in time."

For example, A World Of Tweets presents a fascinating real-time look at tweets originating around the globe. A heat map (or smoky cloud) unfolds in running time when you open the site. It colors regions of the earth with the most Twitter traffic. A World Of Tweets could yield a simple geography lesson in class, or it could springboard to more sophisticated discussions of urban and rural centers, technology vis à vis superpowers, global trade, or emerging BRIC economies.

Source: "Visualization" search on Tori's Eye
A completely different visualization is Tori's Eye, which provides a search field for terms, hashtags, and users and then displays the results in an appealing, animated image. Origami-style birds float across a green and yellow landscape carrying the fruits of your search. Research through this search engine would easily capture the attention of younger students.

Source: "Visual Thinking" search on The Archivist
The Archivist is another search service that focuses on data and statistics for desired topics. Graphs and figures highlight the top url sources of information and the top Twitter users mentioning similar ideas. The Archivist would offer a good mathematical exhibit or a glimpse at social media volume.

Source: @theASIDEblog density on TweetStats
TweetStats also returns statistics about Twitter, but in this case, it allows users to peer into data about their own accounts. Students could analyze tweet frequency and density, or they could compare charts and graphs.

Visible Tweets blends PowerPoint-style transitions with simple searches, to read Twitter traffic about a given subject or hashtag. The colors and layout change constantly, and Visible Tweets seems to reach into more historic results than other Twitter searches.

Source: "Graphicacy" search on Visible Tweets
Portwiture is a visual rendering of a user's most recent tweets. It culls pictures from Flickr into a checkerboard of metaphoric meaning. For students, Portwiture could help them study symbolism, or it could supply unexpected images for projects, websites, or wallpapers.

Source: @theASIDEblog on Portwiture
Finally, tweetPad seems like an intriguing software to interpret Twitter feeds in a topographic layout. The application must be installed, but the results could appeal to art students or visual geologists.

For some other intriguing Twitter visualizations, check out this list from Flowing Data, one of our favorite sites.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Geography: An Impromptu Kid Visualization

Source: Sarah, 5th Grade, 2012
Promoting visual thinking and using it in our classrooms has kids drawing and inventing their own ways to help themselves become better geographers. It was a sheer delight to see a fifth-grade student create the images you see in this post to help visualize the countries on the continent of South America. The student found multiple versions of the same map with arrows pointing to individual countries. They were sized and printed small enough to make a study guide on letter-size paper with tiny, flip cards over each country name. This clever visualization would be a good way to make simple infographics with students as a classroom activity.

For more than eight years, we have made a concerted effort to promote geography and global awareness throughout our school. We have not only done this with the promotion of a school-wide National Geographic Bee competition, but also by using maps of all kinds, both static and interactive, in our classrooms. To make a point of why it is important to be good geographers, we show our students the FedEx video “Where’s China?", emphasizing how it's not enough to know just the names of countries. We want them also to know where they are. Anyone can memorize a list of countries and capitals.
Source: Sarah, 5th Grade, 2012
This year, we are also making an effort to have students create visualizations to help them learn about places in the world and their relationship to other areas or regions. This enables them to make connections between geographic locations and current events. We are hopeful that our middle-school students will know every country's location in the world by the end of the year. While this may be a lofty task, many of them are excited by the challenge and have taken it on with a vengeance. We could not ask for more as teachers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Year Without Worksheets

Each year ushers in resolutions – some bold, others timid, many chucked in ensuing weeks. This January we propose the following experiment. Amid all of the technologies, ideas, and resources currently available to teachers, we would like to live “A Year Without Worksheets.”

Nationwide, public districts and private administrations purchase "programs" to form the foundation of their math, reading, and language curricula. These off-the-shelf programs typically include a core textbook and supplementary worksheets. Some programs augment the formula with web resources or custom videos, but at their base, they rely on regimented worksheets to guide teachers and students through prescripted problems.

Worksheets are not inherently poor teaching tools. They allow children to practice skills in standardized, structured formats. Worksheets theoretically draw from outside experts and take the onus off of the teacher to create customized lesson materials.

These perceived "benefits," however, actually constitute the negative influences of worksheets in the classroom. Photocopied, bulk handouts push a "one size fits all" model of teaching, where every child, silently at her desk, dutifully mimics the regimen of her tutor. Worksheets represent a delivery-based model of instruction, where the teacher provides the pattern and the student conforms to the mold. “Good” worksheets do exist, inviting geographic analysis or document-based writing and including supporting images and informed designs. “Bad” worksheets, however, draw their inspiration from a commoditized view of student learning.

Source: ASIDE
Substandard worksheets ask nothing of the educator. They demand nothing more from a scholar than to manipulate a photocopier and pass out paper. They turn a teacher into a porter, not a professional. An over-reliance on simple worksheets obstructs creativity and collaboration. It refuses unique learning styles, and it denies differentiation and inspiration. On purpose, poorly designed worksheets relegate learners to workers. They dampen motivation and offer no outlet to the poets, astronomers, and dreamers among our children. Every modern educational theory champions music, play, dynamism, interaction, projects, technology, public-speaking, and problem-solving. Uniform worksheets allow none of these. They promote homogeneous learning for a heterogeneous America.

The basic philosophy of factory worksheets suggests that a consistent curriculum is important for educational quality, because teachers can't be trusted to devise lessons. It imagines teachers as ill-motivated to invent exceptional materials and stimulating seminars. Yet even the prairie matron in her one-room schoolhouse would never suggest passing out identical, dull lessons to her cottage of diverse pupils.

Realistically, we're not giving up on worksheets. We still value individual rehearsal and independent investigation. Many enriching, valuable worksheets can challenge the mind and reinforce core learning. But wouldn’t it be nice if we really could eschew photocopied learning all together? Wouldn’t it be liberating to jettison the piles of paper and unshackle ourselves from the Xerox machine, to join our students in freeing, hands-on, experiential learning?

What we’re hoping for, really, is moderation in worksheets. We can’t avoid printouts, but we do promise to think extra hard about every handout we distribute. In our resolution, we will take pains to include helpful illustrations, catchy layouts, and educational methodology into each worksheet we craft. Ultimately, it’s not the worksheet that’s the problem. It’s the stultifying design and the over-dependence that we're trying to dispel.

There are many ways to incorporate the positive aspects of worksheets – such as primary documents, mathematical practice, and grammar exercises – into hand-made, interactive, exciting lessons that utilize easily available technologies or old-fashioned circle times. For the record, the periodic table is not a worksheet. A paragraph response to a colonial diary is not a worksheet. An x/y coordinate graph or a hand-drawn menu in French is not a worksheet. Worksheets are those formulaic texts that measure learning by time quietly spent. They are the fill-in-the-blank chore of the "Do Now" and the crutch of delayed retirement.

For these reasons and more, we are proposing a year without worksheets. We are going to emphasize a year of personal teaching, original materials, innovative lessons, and imaginative activities. We will no doubt falter, in falling back on a Bill of Rights handout or a Census chart, and we will likely slip in a sheet or two for homework. But we will try, in bucking carbon-copied shortcuts, to hone in on layered, dynamic, self-pioneered worksheets that excite students with pictures and appeal. We will hopefully force ourselves to avoid the bluffing that comes with 30 minutes of "silent work at one's desk."

We invite you to join us in our initiative to design information for teaching that is not routine. If you have suggestions or ideas about how to make this worksheet-free dream a reality, please let us know. We anticipate needing as much help as possible to teach “A Year Without Worksheets.” Add your thoughts to your tweets about the topic. Use the hastag #AYWW.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Flickr: Spelling With a Splash

Source: ASIDE, 2012
Plain and simple, Spelling with Flickr is fun. It was created by Erik Kastner. He came up with the idea after receiving a note made from the One Letter Group on Flickr. It works great with younger students, and they get hooked on it right away. Use it in vocabulary lessons, for acrostic poetry, to create headlines, on infographics, and more. It is also easy to combine these spelling creations as images with other Web 2.0 applications such as wikis and blogs.

Who knows? It just might be one of the best ways to have kids learn the words on the proverbial "spelling list" by changing the words into something more dynamic. Designing information with this site is easy. Whatever the use, Spelling with Flickr is bound to be a hit.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Doodling & Visual Thinking: A Case For Paper

Source: ASIDE, 2012
In our point-and-click world, especially for our born-digitals, have we moved too far away from the tactile approach to learning? Oh sure, we can swipe an iPad and move things around on an interactive whiteboard; heck, we can even brainstorm and mind-map using Web 2.0 tools. But what about the good old making-it-with-your hands approach? We’ve seen kids who are terrific playing archery on the Wii, but who cannot follow simply directions for physically holding a bow, because they don’t get to touch that stuff often enough.

That’s why making a case for doodling seems so important to learning. Doodling with a pen, pencil, or whatever instead of a mouse, stylus, or finger is different. The sheer act of making something with your own hands changes the way we look at things. It is also permanent in a different way. On electronic devices, creations can be saved, but you have to turn them on to see them. On paper, you can leave a doodle visible to live with, think about subconsciously, or change immediately because you notice something in a fleeting moment. They say inspiration is lost if not captured. Artists do this all the time. Their studios are filled with finished and unfinished work.

Source: DanRoam.com
Doodling is a way of thinking, of designing information around a thought process. We work with students as educators to pre-write, revise, edit and publish. Why not try having them doodle vocabulary words, or what it would look like to hunt buffalo by the Plains Indians? Best-selling author Dan Roam uses drawing to work with some of the biggest companies in the world. His books The Back of Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures and Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures are international best sellers.  His latest book, Blah, Blah, Blah: What to Do When Words Don't Work, continues his philosophy of balancing the world between "the fox and the hummingbird" for what he calls "vivid grammar." In other words, he urges us to be double-minded, using both verbal and visual connections. Roam uses visual thinking to spur creativity and innovation. Isn’t that what we want for our students?

Be Double Minded from Dan Roam on Vimeo.

Too often, we associate doodling as a distraction or not paying attention. Is it? Not according to the studies. Check out our earlier post on Sunni Brown and her CNN interview “What We Learn from Doodles.” Doodling can actually lead to improving cognitive performance, increasing retention of information, and engaging and motivating students in a more meaningful way. To doodle quietly while listening to information can make it easier to concentrate. In other words, it can take away the distractions.
Source: Sunni Brown: Doodlers, unite! TED Talk
Take a look at Vi Hart’s Math Doodling videos with titles such as Binary Trees, Snakes + Graphs, and Infinity Elephants. These lively videos demonstrate how doodling can be an engaging form of learning. What an innovative and creative way to explain math concepts to help students learn.

Information today is not linear but fluid and organic. So is doodling. It allows for the design of images and words in a different way from the traditional model of organizing content. Planning a lesson built around doodling might just yield results that surprise us. It’s worth a try, isn't it?

Source: ASIDE, 2012
For the techies out there, see our earlier post on Doodlebuzz, the news aggregator for the visual thinker. It is anything but linear. And, if you really have an aversion to paper, try using doodle.ly during a meeting or conference to keep you thinking while doodling.

No matter what your preference, the process of organically taking information on a spontaneous path through doodling can lead to new discoveries and ideas. Remember, doodling is not as the modern definition suggests:

Source: Sunni Brown, Doodlers, unite! TED Talk

Monday, January 9, 2012

Products of Slavery: Teaching the Tough Lesson

Source: Anti-Slavery
Many students in upper elementary and middle schools associate slavery with the nineteenth-century era of American history when African Americans were forced to work on southern plantation fields. Few know that modern slavery is on the rise at an alarming rate. When we tell them that it is a 32-billion-dollar-plus industry and the average price to purchase a human for slave labor is about $90, they are shocked. In their young minds, it is difficult to grasp the gravity of the situation. To help them visualize the enormity of the problem, we use the interactive Products of Slavery map from the Anti-Slavery organization. Its motto is “today’s fight for tomorrow’s freedom.”

Source: Products of Slavery

The Products of Slavery map shows where products are made by forced or child labor in the top 25 countries around the world. The statistics can be separated to see the distinction between which group provides the most slave labor by clicking the boxes at the top. The map adjusts to reflect the numbers, and the students quickly learn that children make up the majority of slave labor today.
Source: Products of Slavery

The clarity and ease of use make it ideal for working with younger students. With the focus, too, on products, it minimizes the topic to items that are age-appropriate, leaving out the harsher reality of sex trafficking of women and children. The countries and the number of products they produce through slave labor pop up by clicking on the yellow bubbles on the map. Students can then pick from this group to find more detailed information. A new screen opens with a map showing other places this product is produced through slave labor, as well as documented facts, quotes, and links to other resources. The students are touched by the words of so many young children who describe the hardships they face. It is a moving experience for them.

Source: Products of Slavery
Talking to students about modern slavery and helping them visualize the places in the world where it occurs should be part of curricular learning in our schools nationwide. While the United States does not have slave labor, that does not mean Americans do not use products that come from other places or criminally use enslaved help. Last December, the Huffington Post published an article on human slavery with a pointed reminder:
“It's uncomfortable to think of ourselves as employing slaves, but according to the Slavery Footprint, almost all of us do. As we start 2012, the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it's a good way to educate ourselves and then take action to end slavery once and for all.”
While this seems trite in light of the subject matter, teachers can utilize the Products of Slavery website to integrate lessons on geography. The Anti-Slavery organization also has a poster that can be downloaded for classroom use. Additionally, math lessons could be developed for students with this information.

Please see our earlier post, Matchbox Kids, Not Toys - End Slavery, on this topic. For more information on prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnerships to monitor and combat the trafficking of human persons, visit the U.S. State Department’s website.

Source: Products of Slavery

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Innovators At Our Doorstep (More Than Tagalongs)

Outside of the classroom, respected communities can help animate young minds with activities tailored to loyal learners. One noble outfit, the Girl Scouts of the USA, is continuing its century-long mission of inspiring women and girls while at the same time shedding any vestige of musty orthodoxy. Recently, the Girl Scouts redesigned the requirements of their seminal programs. They reimagined their badges, too, to present an invigorated model of forward-thinking leadership for a new generation.
Girl Scout Innovation Badges
Source: Fast Company Co.Design
The goal of repositioning the badges, properly called insignia, was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts by looking ahead to the next 100 years. The aim was to establish a balanced table between boys and girls, to emphasize leadership among young women who might otherwise opt out of captaining roles. The Girl Scouts retained their time-honored legacy badges, but they also added new modules for “Millenial ideals.”

The most intriguing of the new insignia are the innovation badges. Fast Company’s Co.Design blog recently featured a terrific write-up, by Lauren Pollak of strategy consulting firm Jump Associates, entitled “What Designing The New Girl Scouts Innovation Badges Taught Us About Raising Leaders.” Pollak smartly positions the logos' designs within the overall context of empathy and learning. We strongly encourage you to read the entire piece, which is fascinating in its support of empowering education for young women.

Source: Original Champions of Design
The levels of badges range from inventor to social innovator. The courses seek to “leverage children’s existing creativity,” “train hybrid thinkers,” “build empathy before solutions,” and “enable great storytellers.” With such a progressive culture and vibrant vision, it’s clear the girls are leaving their reactionary scouting cousins in the dust.

Digital Movie Maker Badge
Source: Daily Mail Online
As part of an overall rebranding effort led by Original Champions of Design (OCD), many programs have either been initiated or tweaked to revamp the Girl Scouts' daily practice. Contemporary courses in financial literacy, for example, have been added as companions to the annual cookie sales. Badges for Making Choices, Money Matters, and Philanthropist all foster life-long habits of investing. Other conventional subjects have been updated to reflect advanced studies, such as the Science of Style, Science of Happiness, Digital Movie Maker, and Eating for Beauty. Additional of-the-moment insignia include Locavore and Netiquette, which progress satisfyingly from earlier, “innovative” badges in Canning and Telegraph. There are even "journey" awards, called "It's Your World - Change It!"

Source: Main Street; The Girl Scouts
The Girl Scouts have always been entrepreneurial in peddling their luxuriously-priced Samoas and refrigerator-ready Thin Mints. Now, the self-reliant spirit is being taught from an early age. In all, the new designs reflect the importance of educators keeping current and staying relevant in children's eyes. In this respect, teachers can learn from the Girl Scouts’ impressive equilibrium in remaining faithful to tradition and in rethinking what it means to be “excellent.”

We apologize, by the way, if we have misused any nomenclature for the various levels of scouting. Also, we also recommend this clip of CEO Anna Maria Chávez explaining how the Girl Scouts are modernizing. One thing is for certain: the Boy Scouts are now officially behind the times.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Picture This, Picture You: Infographics for the Entrepreneur

Source: FastCompany
This year, we incorporated a new, interdisciplinary project-based learning unit into the fifth-grade curriculum called “Entrepreneurship: Where Ideas Meet Money and Marketing.” The essential question for the students was, “What is an entrepreneur, and how does an entrepreneur build a business out of an idea to change the way people think?” The challenge for them was to come up with a business plan to market a good or service as an entrepreneur to the school community.

Source: Grasshopper Group

We used infographics to help them visualize the traits of an entrepreneur, who they are, and the types of challenges they face in creating their own businesses. Graphics helped the students clearly see information that is usually not geared for the average ten-year-old. The level of complexity was also a way to differentiate the information depending on the learner. They could self-select areas to focus on in the image at various levels of comprehension that would match their abilities.

Source: TechLifeMashup
The benefits of the project were multifold for student learning and supported by many articles in education dealing with entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity. According to the government’s Small Business Administration, entrepreneurs under age 30 start approximately one third of new businesses annually, and small companies account for 99.7 percent of employer-owned firms that create over 64 percent of new jobs. The added plus of using infographics to learn about entrepreneurship helped make the project a huge success.

For a closer look at these infographics click the links below:

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