No one’s immune from the effects of deep practice

I love this video. Thanks John Burk for sending it my way. In this tutorial the programming mavens at Google wish to introduce us to a new feature that will boost their cred as the world’s “data brokers.” This will increase revenue by bringing in more advertising business, which will further fund Eric Schmidt’s mission of “collecting all the world’s data and making it accessible to everyone.” Watch.

Job well done, Google. But in this video, you’ve done much more than tout your own products.  You’ve made universal the notion of deep practice.

In the video the narrator explains that, contrary to common suspicion, Google does not have a workforce of elves translating our documents from a cubicle-lined warehouse somewhere in Mountain View, CA.

Instead, Google uses a process called “statistical machine translation,” which he describes as a process in which machines “generate translations based on large amounts of text.”

Rather than learning language by applying vocabulary to a set of rules, Google’s computers analyze millions upon millions of documents that have already been translated.  They look for “statistically significant patterns.”  Once it detects a pattern, it attempts to use that pattern in the future.  When a user rejects the translation, the computer learns that this pattern is not as consistent as it once thought.  It makes adjustments, seeks for “sub-patterns” (my word), and engages in continued analysis.

Over an over again, Google’s computers are testing patterns, detecting new patterns, and finding new documents to analyze, further increasing the possible combinations of patterns. As he says, “when you have billions of documents, you have billions of patterns.”

Question: Are Google’s computers engaging in “deep practice?”

What Disney’s recent move is telling us about education

On my ride home from work today I heard this piece on NPR.  It turns out that Walt Disney Company is attempting to re-brand Mickey Mouse to the next generation–by making him the protagonist of a video game.

No news here.

Mickey Mouse and his nemesis, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?

In “Epic Mickey,” Disney’s flagship cartoon character is sent to  “Wasteland,” the purgatory for all Disney characters that are destined for the cutting room floor–an “Island of Misfit Toys” for Disney graphic designers’ wayward whims, if you will.

In creating “Epic Mickey,” not only is Disney attempting to reintroduce Mickey to a market that long since stopped caring about him; they are taking the bold, hilarious and downright mischievous step of digging up every character, idea and design that did not “make the cut” and inserting it into the plotline of the video game.

Enter: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  Disney aficionados apparently are aware that in the mid 20’s Walt Disney created his first character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  A short time after creating this character, Disney lost the rights to Oswald during a contract dispute, opening the door for the accidental cartoon sensation of the 20th century…Mickey Mouse.

Fast forward 90 years…in 2007 Disney reacquired the rights to Oswald.  Subsequently, Oswald plays the part of Mickey’s foil in the new video game “Epic Mickey.”

Why do I care about this?

The question “How should we roll this out?” is, I’m sure, an intensely scrutinized question in any marketing process, whether it be a new flavor of Gatorade or a new face in Disney’s panoply of characters.

What does it tell us that Disney is using the video game industry to rebrand Mickey, resurrect Oswald, and bring to light dozens (if not hundreds) of shadowy cartoon characters?

Rebrand Mickey?  Sounds reasonable.  After all, kids today go to Disneyworld.  However, who on Earth but Disney devotees and people well into their 90’s (remember, the last time Oswald was heard from was 1928.  Anyone capable of remembering such a character had to be of at least Junior High age) has even heard of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?  And when was the last time one of them picked up a Wii?

The first time a recording artist premiered her album on iTunes rather than with a CD release party, she unwittingly signaled the death knell for hard copy music sales.  CD’s are still walking around post-mortem, but it’s only because Luddites like myself don’t like the fact that mp3’s don’t come with jewel cases that shatter if you look at them crossly.

I engaged in active denial until now, but I resign myself to the suspicion that much like mp3’s, video games will become the one of the central vehicles for pop culture, and since education often tries to imitate pop culture, we will soon be teaching using video games.  It makes perfect sense.  They’re engaging, interactive, require investment of time and money.  Just the things marketers and educators look for in an audience.  Of course, I’m not the first person to suggest this.

One problem.

Activision presents….High School Chemistry: Black Ops?

What company in its right mind would plunk the millions of R&D dollars into educational video games.  As McGraw Hill discovered, textbooks don’t pay nearly as well as pay-to-play bond rating publications (sorry Moody’s, but you drew first blood).

However, like Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.”  I think “life” will find a way to bring educational video gaming to the marketplace, and I think I know what it will look like.

Introducing the “Wiktari 2600”

No one born after 1978 will have any idea what that reference means.  No bother.  I anticipate (nay drool with anticipation for) the first simplified markup language platform in which students and teachers may collaboratively build the universe, storyboards, characters, objectives, and conclusions, all tailored to student learning goals.  Rather than becoming quasi-literate in programming code, users will use “wikitext” to create worlds in which creation is the product of learning, and vice versa.

If such a thing already exists, I’m going to be embarrassed.  Please contact me so that I can rescind this post.  Then send me the link to this wiki-game-editing device.  I want to get in on the ground floor of “Pong, Spanish Edition.”

The 13-year prologue

Technically this is my 15th year in teaching. Two at UGA, two in the VA public schools, and 10 at Westminster. People react with regard when I belt out that number. Ever since I hit “10,” actually. Somehow 10+ garners the respect that the number 9 did not deserve. Little do they know that my 13th year of teaching bore much resemblance to my ninth year of teaching…and my fifth, and my first.

In my third year at Westminster I took over operations of the schools language lab, a 36-station computer lab equipped with hardware/software that made possible numerous configurations for recordable interactivity (this description does not do justice to the versatility of the lab, but I’ll leave it at that). For the seven years that followed I focused more on my capacity as lab director than as a Spanish teacher. I receive a heap of credit for researching, tinkering with, and helping to integrate new technologies into our language teachers’ daily practice, but in doing so I squandered my opportunity to evolve. Yes, I used these tools in my own class, but my methodologies and core beliefs didn’t change. To be more accurate, I didn’t have core beliefs. I had a textbook.

Textbook + technology = dangerously convenient palimpsest for creative teaching.

It just so happens that 2003-2010 was an enormously exciting time in instructional technology. Apps that we now consider part of our daily lexicon (Google Apps, blogs & wikis, Twitter) had been around for a year, perhaps 10, but they were still VERY scary to most teachers; ways to incorporate them into our teaching (never mind getting our heads around them) were nebulous. I experienced a tremendous amount of growth in the WHAT, but below the surface was some frustration about the WHY. I didn’t know what questions to ask myself or others, so I sufficed to proceed “whatting” for another couple of years.

Then came the Powerful Learning Practice Consortium (2008) and the Dobbs Cohort (2009). PLP is a 21st Century PLC that brings together faculty and staff from private and independent schools around the country. The aim was to begin a dialogue at each member’s school about 21st Century competencies and the technology to go along with it. I learned about some game-changing tools, but I continued with my fearless “whatting,” and never got to the “whying.” It would be reckless to attribute my stagnation to the curriculum of the PLP. By that time I had evolved enough to begin addressing the meta-issues of my teaching practice. In fact, I’ve come to know Will Richardson a bit more in recent years and love to hear his evolving thoughts on technology in 21st C practice.

In 2009 I joined a cohort through the Center for Teaching. The Dobbs “21st Century Teaching” Cohort, facilitated by Laura Deisley and Brandi Sabb, did not possess a magic formula that inspires great teaching. In fact, I was impressed with lack of technological pizazz. (We used a dozen of tech tools along the way, but they were not the end we sought, just a means). However, it was in this cohort that I saw for the first time the trait that has repeated itself in all PD experiences that followed–conversation. It was through lengthy, uninterrupted, facilitated (but not shepherded) conversations that I began to realize what has been missing in my PD.

All good things start with a conversation.

This simple, elegant, and seemingly trite premise has guided the majority of my most impactful professional experiences from Sept 2009 to the present.

It guided me toward seeking a Professional Learning Community at my own school.

It nudged me toward the Science Leadership Academy for Educon 2.2 (itself a “conference and a conversation”) where I met the majority of my current Professional Learning Network.

It led me to co-facilitate a PLT of Spanish teachers in my own Junior High.

And it drew me to the Hathaway Brown Education Innovation Summit at the beginning of this month. That’s where I heard Daniel Coyle speak, and that’s when my teaching practice paused, pivoted and remains at this moment locked in a steady gaze on an unmoving and immoveable, distant point called “deep practice.”

I’m patting myself on the back for my patience and restraint. I’m the type to dive into something the moment I express interest. The result is usually fun and innovative, but rarely long-lasting or substantively effective. But right now I’m calmly leafing through the pages of the Talent Code, asking myself, “What does ‘deep practice’ look like in the classroom?” “Can I do this and will it result in meaningful, ‘well-myelinated’ learning for my kids?” “Will my students’ parents experience Coyle’s ‘HSE’ one day when they stumble through their kitchen, hear their child skyping with a friend in a far-off land, and realize their child is proficient in Spanish and passionate about making connections with it?”

So, that brings us to the present. I can’t unlearn what I’ve learned.  And now that I’ve put it down in “pixels,” you good people will hold me accountable.  The prologue is concluded, which leads us to Chapter 1.  I’ll call it “Learning that damn pen trick that I could never figure out as a kid.”

Fair Warning

Ultimately, this blog is about my journey through the redesign of my teaching practice. Only in it’s nascent form, I’ve come to realize that there is a better way. Since four years of college and two years of grad school didn’t do much for the “teacher” in me, and since the only thing that has really helped has been good conversation, I figured I’d start up a conversation of my own. But first, some things you probably should know.

I’m a realist and a self-indulgent writer. I probably won’t spend much time on whimsy in the posts that follow, but neither will I demonstrate brevity indicative of true wit. My default setting is sarcasm and I’ve been told that I overuse the comma. I’ll try to keep a lid on both. I’m a self-described “good teacher aspiring to be great,” and for the first time in a respectable, though not extraordinary 15-year career in education I think I might just have a shot at it.

As my friend Laura D said about a year ago, I, too, sense a “perfect storm” in education. Some are, at this moment, being tossed around by it’s disruptive and often chaotic winds. I’m just now opening the cellar door. I feel tethered to the ground by the “rudimentary skills” component of introductory foreign language learning (in which I also find a great deal of joy, discovery, and opportunities for lame jokes). However, I believe that communicating (in any language) has got to GET YOU SOMEWHERE, and for the whole of my teaching practice I fear that the only place that I’ve gotten my kids is through the required number of chapters…without much conversation about where else they can go. Last year I began to see a path carved out, which I’m sure I’ll elaborate on in future posts.

Thanks to recent events, namely the CFT Dobbs Cohort, a site called Twitter, three guys named Wagner, Gladwell, and Coyle, and a few dozen insatiably curious and interconnected colleagues, I sense that clarity (or something simulating it) may be on the horizon. I recognize that the horizon is a long haul, especially with a half-ton of textbooks strapped to your back. Furthermore, the horizon has a nasty habit of sneaking away from you, especially when you’re laser-focused on approaching it.

Although blogs are most often focused on the author, I would love to see this become a conversation. Feel free to ask questions, challenge my so-called beliefs, and call me out when I’m being glib or pompous. Forward the link to any language teachers you know…I need their feedback more than anyone. And if it seems they know more than I do, I’ll follow their blog and shut this outfit down.

Thanks for stopping by.