Innovative Learning Conference Report

On Friday I attended a conference that I’d never been to before, the Innovative Learning Conference. The conference is held on the grounds of Nueva School, a rather posh private school in Hillsborough, CA that serves gifted students, and it’s a lovely setting for engaging in deep thinking about education. The speakers included game designers, neuroscientists and doctors, engineers, policy makers, and educators. I focused my attention on educational technology related to math and science. Here’s a recap of the sessions I attended:

A Future of Visualization in Education, David Bolinsky
I was a bit concerned when the speaker spent the first 15 minutes talking about his background, science fiction, and singularity without showing a single visual image. Fortunately, he then launched into his presentation, showing us beautiful animations of anatomy and telling the story of The Inner Life of the Cell. I wish he had spent more time on the final part of the talk, when he showed a prototype of a really cool immersive, interactive science book on an iPad.

Numbers that Tilt, Pop, & Push: Manipulating Math in Mobile Games, Gabriel Adauto and Jacob Klein
The co-founders of Motion Math discussed their goal—to develop games that develop number sense—and some of the lessons they have learned in the process of developing and testing their games. Well-designed games can induce “flow” and encourage kids to persevere with challenging tasks. They have clearly put a lot of thought into their games, and the one I tried is pretty addictive!

Problem-Solving: A 21st-Century Education? Richard Rusczyk
The speaker founded the Art of Problem Solving, and he has created books and online courses for the highest performing mathematics students. However, many of his points made sense for all math students. He noted that the standard mathematics curriculum lacks depth, encourages memorization instead of synthesis, and is delivered poorly, with rote problems posed after examples instead of posing rich, challenging problems to drive students to delve into the mathematics themselves. He also opined that discrete math should be given more emphasis and calculus less. He recommended math circles, math clubs, and math competitions as venues for high achieving math students to find challenges, build their problem solving skills, and meet like-minded peers.

Lunch Panel on Technology & Education
The great thing about an interdisciplinary conference is the opportunity to be introduced to great thinkers in fields outside of your own. My new hero is James Gee, whose statements on literacy, technology (potential and hype), and social justice really resonated with me. It appears he doesn’t update his blog that often, but check out his post on Books and Video Games.

Rethinking Learning, Salman Khan
I am a bit skeptical of the Khan Academy and all the hype (and now, funding) that surrounds it. See Dan Meyer’s blog for a good discussion. In person, I found him quite likable—smart but self-effacing—and the audience clearly loved him. Khan stated that the current educational paradigm is that the time you have to learn a concept is fixed, and how well you learn it is variable. He proposes flipping that paradigm: mastery should be the goal, with as much or as little time given to mastery as each student needs. My skepticism comes from the fact that the videos and the curriculum in the Khan Academy mostly offer the rote basics, rather than the rich and challenging problems that Rusczyk (and many leaders in math education) advocate for. Still, I would have found his website a help on several occasions in my own math education, and it appears there are millions of students who find it a great resource.

Common Core State Standards in MathematicsWhat Will It Look Like in the Classroom and How Will Students Be Assessed, David Foster
David Foster, who directs the Silicon Valley Math Initiative, talked about the Standards for Mathematical Practice and the draft of the content specifications for the Common Core assessments from the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). He showed a video of a “re-engagement” lesson in which students sorted equations, expressions, inequalities, and mathematical properties into groups and describe the similarities and differences among them. There wasn’t time to delve deeply into how the Standards for Mathematical Practice will be assessed, but the SBAC assessment will include some open-ended items that will require hand scoring—hopefully by classroom teachers.

Learning to Reason and the Implications for Mathematics Education Across the K–20 Spectrum, Ruth Parker
If you are a math educator or the parent of an elementary or a middle school student, then you really need to hear Ruth Parker speak. She makes a powerful case that teaching students the “standard algorithms” can actually hinder students’ mathematical development. Check out the website of the Mathematics Education Collaborative and find a way to see her speak. Really. Just do it.

So, to recap: beautiful setting, deep thinkers, new perspectives. I think I’ll be back next year!

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