Thursday, December 29, 2011

Setting the Audio

One of the goals of SCIENCE 21 (, the elementary science program I direct, is to provide teachers with a plethora of resources to utilize with their students.  Recently, a number of teachers have inquired about creating audiobook versions of the “readers” we have previously created (see below for an example).

We’ve already made the readers available online by saving the pages as Publisher files, and then converting them to .pdf files (here’s one as an example:  In this way, teachers can use the hard copy versions of our readers as group read-alouds and have the .pdf files up on interactive whiteboards or separate computer terminals for students to read together in groups and/or explore individually.

When I was asked to put together an audiobook, I wanted to make sure that I was able to utilize the files we had already created and would be able to format the audiobooks in such a way that every classroom could view and listen to them. 

So, I decided to design .ppt files with built in audio on each slide.  The creation was simple but time-consuming.  I migrated the images and text from Publisher, resized them to fit the slightly modified .ppt slide area and then began the process of generating audio (see below for a screenshot of one of the .ppt slides).

We have a recording studio on campus and I utilized Adobe Audition (a very user-friendly product, by the way) in the studio to record me reading each of the pages.  I created two versions, a standard one where I simply read the pages, and an extended version where I supplied a number of critical thinking questions as well.  I saved the files as .mp3 extensions to reduce the file size, and then embedded them in the .ppt.  To make the audiobook easier to use, I set the audio to play on each slide shift, and moved the audio “button” out of the visible field of the slide, so it would be less likely to be deleted or moved. 

We then placed both versions up on the web for teachers to review.  We also created a short survey about the books to get a sense of whether teachers felt they were more likely to use the standard or extended versions.  So far, feedback has been extremely positive and I’m excited to be able to offer additional curricular resources to our users!

Want to check out the audiobooks for yourself?  Visit and then click on “SCIENCE 21 Readers and Audiobooks.”  Listen to the two samples provided for the “What’s in the Box?” book, and let me know what you think!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Learning (and "Unlearning") Every Day

My daughter is a little over a year and a half and she's a spitfire.  Every day she amazes me and my wife with what comes out of her mouth, and what actions she takes.  As an educator and scientist at heart, I'm always amazed at what she learns, and what she doesn't.

Take colors, for instance.  My daughter is at a stage where she loves picking up objects and telling me what color they are.  She readily identifies yellow, orange, blue, red, pink, etc.  However, she refuses to call orange, "orange."  Why?  Not a clue.

Or consider counting.  We count together up to ten, but she never says eight.  In fact, every number beyond seven is "nine."  What allows a person to build conceptual understanding but prevents them from tearing down "blockages?"  I find it all so interesting.

So interesting, in fact, that I ran a quick test with my daughter this week (the armchair scientist's work is never done).  As we were driving home from my daughter's daycare on Thursday, I started counting off by odd numbers, interested to see if my daughter would insert the evens.  After a few practice rounds, she did (of course leaving out eight).  The speed that she picked this up was amazing to me.  What was even more amazing is that over the last three days, anytime we ask her to count, she now only counts in even numbers.  In effect, by trying to teach her a new idea, I somehow made her "unlearn" the other numbers she seemed to know!

The connection to education (whether working with pre-K'ers or high school students) is that we all inherently have concepts and ideas that come to us very easily, and misconceptions that can arise at the drop of a hat.  As educators (and certainly parenting is all about education) it is our job to identify what comes easy (nothing provides challenge for those who "get it" better than encouraging them to assist others) and what just seems to be "blocked."  We also must do our best to not create gaps in understanding by trying to teach new ideas that others might not be ready for or that might confuse cognition.  What do we do to help when those obstacles seem to just pop up?  Well, that seems to depend quite a bit on age.  Based on my experience, I've provided a few thoughts below.

For the really, really, young, repetition and practice can often provide the push to overcome any misconception.  Since conceptual understanding of all things is occurring at a breakneck pace, ideas are constantly being relearned.  It's like continuing to add a new coat of paint.  Eventually, it looks just right.

For elementary level students, unpacking challenging ideas in truly concrete ways is helpful.  Small, discrete, ideas provided with ample time to explore in a variety of learning modalities is key.  So is avoiding creating misconceptions yourself as ideas "set" at this age often have a way of "sticking."  Explaining that plants conduct photosynthesis and animals conduct cellular respiration to a third grader "glues" the idea that plants do not conduct cellular respiration into their scientific consciousness.  This erroneous idea, like others, becomes much tougher to remove as students get older.

For secondary and post-secondary learners, the idea of metacognition is paramount.  Once students can truly think about their thinking, they can begin to explore why certain concepts challenge them, and what they, in fact, can do about it.  The self-motivated learner is what we hope all our students (and even ourselves) will become.

Finally, for "adults" collaborative opportunities keep learning fresh, and help us to see ideas from other perspectives.  Since we often get further set in our ways as we age, nothing works better to loosen these restrictions than engaging in evidence-based discussion with others.

The key, of course, is to always keep learning (and to strive to "unlearn" that which is not "correct").  We see it in the very young, and this trait of "learning everyday" should be something everyone sets on their daily "To Do" list.  While certainly a lofty goal, it is one that can be reached and never exhausted at the same time.