Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tool of the Day: KeepVid

I've recently decided that KeepVid is the YouTube-using teacher's best friend, at least in terms of not worrying about connectivity, firewalls, or ads at school. For instance these two videos are now on my hard drive ready to be used in my intro to earthquakes lesson next week:

On the other hand, I haven't figured out how to do anything but stream this one from google:

Do you have favorite tools for this that are different / better? If so, please share!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Food for Thought

I don't know about you, but I've had enough holiday feasting to last me through the end of December, easy. (Oh, wait, there are more holidays between now and then?)

So, rather than food for the body, some food for thought: a reform-minded principal's advice to pre-service teachers.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Audiences (Or, That spotlight in my face is blinding me)

Despite my best intentions to keep blogging once school(s) started, it's now been almost a month since I wrote anything here.

The reasons are two-fold:

  1. Between student teaching and taking many classes and trying to take some occasional down-time with my husband / friends / family there have been very few free, waking minutes. (The observant may notice that the time stamp as I started this post was 1:20 a.m. and I'm not yet done with the paper I'm supposed to be finishing tonight.)
  2. Moving into the student teaching environment has made me think more about audiences, paranoia, and transparency.

I think I could get over #1 at least occasionally (the procrastination is strong with this one, I hear Yoda say in the background) if I worked my way through #2 a bit more.

This summer, it was fairly clear who I was writing for: myself, my classmates, a few professors, maybe a few edu-bloggers or edu-twitterers, and any of my friends from my prior lives who saw me post the new url on facebook or twitter.

Now, I'm student teaching at an awesome school with awesome students, parents, teachers, and administrators, and they've all made me start thinking about how not-very-anonymous this blog is (by design) and whether and how being open about my thoughts and experiences might impact any of those parties at my student teaching school or during future job searches and (hopefully) working at future schools.

A more forward-thinking person might have sorted this out a bit sooner, but it all seemed a lot more abstract in mid-August before any of those people had faces and names.

So, things that are self-evidently clear to me (axioms, as we would say in the geometry class I'm taking):

  1. My students, their parents, and the staff at my student-teaching school have some fairly strong and reasonable expectation of privacy. No real names or identifying descriptors of people or events should be used.
  2. I should assume that any of those people can (and may already have -- hi!) find this blog and read it in its entirety at any time.

Things that are less clear to me:

  1. What is okay to discuss here? Presumably things I'm learning about in class at the university. Presumably thoughts and reactions to public events (education policy and news).
  2. What about carefully anonymized and abstracted dilemmas that occur in student teaching? For example, a hypothetical parent who hypothetically sends my mentor teacher some very polite questions about whether our Earth Science class is pushing a social agenda as we teach our students about early environmental science or the history of the earth. Presumably not the details of the resulting exchanges between the teacher and the parent. But maybe my thoughts on how I might want to address such situations in my own classroom in the future?
  3. How much of a filter should I have in anticipation of future hiring committees? I can easily imagine finding myself ideologically out of step with just about anyone, if for no other reason than the fact that my internal drummer has some very complex, not easily categorized rhythms going on. Also, I'm still working out who might be offended by what in this strange new world of education. Does that mean I should take the cautious path, and shy away from anything that could be controversial? Like say the whole teacher assessment debate in LA that I wrote several entries on in August? Or should I try to get comfortable with the fact that as long as I'm polite and respectful of other opinions, I might as well be honest and transparent on my thinking here and assume that if a future hiring committee is scared away then we'll just have saved each other a lot of time?

Your thoughts are welcome on any of these questions. I'll keep thinking about them too and report back when I come to any internal consensus on any of them. In the meantime, back to that paper!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Lake Wobegon vs. Gold stars

From the LA Times story about the most effective teachers in their value-added analysis (here):

"No one is ever really singled out, neither good nor bad," said Pinto. "The culture of the union is: Everyone is the same. You can't single out anyone for doing badly. So as a result, we don't point out the good either."

"When I worked at a bank, I was employee of the month," he added. "For LAUSD, for some reason, it's not a good thing to do."

What do y'all think: is this a fair portrayal of teacher union culture? If so, would you rather live and work in Lake Wobegon, where all the teachers are above average, or in a world where it's possible for a really excellent teacher's work to be pointed out (with the logical corollary that some of the teachers are not as excellent)?

My previous life as a business consultant biases me away from the traditional union philosophy that all workers are interchangeable and should only be distinguished based on seniority -- I've seen it sap any incentive to be creative or original or excel. On the other hand, unions exist for very real and legitimate reasons -- if that business consulting company had unionized, we might have had a livable work-life balance instead of barn-burner hours because the drive (internal and external) to excel was always greater than the drive to sleep.

(Also interesting in that story -- the teachers who get the best standardized test score improvements do NOT see themselves as teaching to the test; it's a byproduct not a goal.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Let's give them something to talk about...

(Thanks to my friend who lives in LA and keeps pointing out interesting follow-up articles to me.)

First, the LA Times extended the value added analysis to schools rather than just teachers, finding that schools serving similar demographics can have pretty different value-added results on their tests based partially on school leadership and focus on helping individual teachers improve and partially on curricular and instructional focuses. Here.

Then the Times printed opinions on value-added analysis from a variety of education leaders and professionals: Here. I maybe cynical, but the responses seem exactly what you'd expect. (All responses paraphrased by me.)

  • The USC professor: "this just encourages teaching how to take tests, we need to address poverty instead."
  • The charter boosting philanthropic rep: "we should use the data we have and make it better, and make it public to increase transparency."
  • The first LA Board of Ed member: "we don't want to drive teachers to teach to the test, and we support transparency, but how dare the LA Times go airing our dirty laundry."
  • The CEO of a charter management organization: "student test scores should be one part of measuring teacher effectiveness, and should be used to help teachers improve and (after context-setting) with families and communities; value-added measures work better for elementary than high school where you might take a single subject for only one year."
  • The UCLA professor: "value-added methods have a lot of problems and the LA Times shouldn't go ranking every teacher in LA with a single number next to their name -- it's too complicated for that to be fair or helpful."
  • The second Board member: "we were working on teacher effectiveness, incorporating all the stakeholders, and we need more cooperation from the unions and the legislature to make any changes happen."
  • The educational nonprofit exec director and parent: "The great teachers will be fine and something needs to be done to get rid of the really inferior teachers that have been hiding behind the union; maybe this will shame them into going."
  • The president of the teacher's union: "All the Times has is a hammer, so everything looks like a nail -- we need more tools (better administrator observations, less paperwork, more funding), a better definition of student learning and metrics of it, and more guidance for teachers on how to improve their practice"
  • CA Secretary of Education: "Bravo to the Times for forcing this conversation on what metrics to use to measure effective teaching, the union should stop complaining and start working on a better alternative."
  • Parent representative: "standardized tests are not everything, but this data should be public unless they're going to be used by the district for private personnel processes"
  • Third Board member: "We've been making a lot of progress on getting rid of bad teachers in the past two years, really!"

What I'm still missing is the dialogue -- not just, "this is what I believe" but "I hear what you believe and this is why I disagree." I'd love to get all these people in a room (and also the key LA Times reporters and editor) and see if a constructive conversation could be fostered. Wouldn't it be great to find out what they might come up with?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fortune favors the bold (Or, the best defense is a good offense)

So, Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers) thinks parents should have access to individual teacher's performance evaluations, and maybe those performance evaluations should take into account value-added test score data, but should not entirely be comprised of such data. Therefore the LA Times is being a big, scary, sledgehammer-wielding meanie by threatening to publish individual teacher's "primitive" and "rudimentary" value-added scores.

I actually think she's mostly right -- it would be better to (a) give parents transparency on teacher's performance evaluations and (b) have those performance evaluations include both standardized test score impacts and other metrics such as classroom observations (ideally unannounced) and student portfolio assessments. Ideally, this would include through a controlled, well understood process whereby the district calculated each teacher's value-added score, and discussed it with teacher so they knew what it meant, and how to use it to make improvements.

I also still think that Ms. Weingarten, the district, and the teachers would be in a lot better position if they were proposing this first rather than using it as a reactive defense to the Times. There are interesting questions in here for any administrator, teacher, parent, or local journalist:

  1. What are your local public school districts currently doing with their standardized test score data? What more could they be doing to really understand your students' learning and your teachers' effectiveness?
  2. What level of transparency does your local district currently offer on teacher performance? Is that sufficient for you and your community?

If the answer to the first question is "not nearly as much as they could be" and the answer to the second question is "not much", then it seems like there is a big, gaping opportunity in your local community, and whoever takes the initiative to come up with a proposed answer first is going to have the most leverage in controlling that debate going forward. The lesson here is that districts and teacher's unions can't just bury their head in the sand and hope the standardized test scores will go away because we don't like them -- fortune favors the bold. Figure out how to use the data in a way that makes sense, then broadcast your answer to heavens. If the LA Unified School District and teachers' union had taken the initiative here, the LA Times would be using the teacher-approved, school-district controlled approach to evaluating teacher effectiveness to write their stories.

What story do you want your local paper to publish?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Value added

This is a fascinating article -- I recommend reading it. Go ahead, I'll wait.

To sum up, the LA Times took data from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) on year-to-year test score changes for each student and hired an outside consultant to calulate teacher effectiveness by the "value add" of each teacher, averaged over all their students, over several years.

How this works: if Jane Doe was a 60th percentile student last year and after being in your class for a year she tested at the 65th percentile, you're given credit for helping her raise her scores, and if she drops to the 55th percentile, your effectiveness is questioned. But of course, other things could have been going on in Jane's world that year, you weren't the only factor. Therefore, the change in relative scores of individual students is averaged over a whole class (or several classes) of students, over several years, and the resulting trends are probably a valid reflection of your academic effectiveness as a teacher relative to your peers.

The Times found several interesting things:

  1. Fairly large variations in the effectiveness of teachers within each school, much larger than the variation between schools.
  2. Very little correlation between teacher experience, education, training, and effectiveness.
  3. Very little correlation between student race, wealth, English proficiency, or previous performance and teacher effectiveness.
  4. A disconnect between perception of effectiveness based on dedication and professional accomplishments and demonstrated academic ineffectiveness based on the data analysis.

In some ways the most interesting aspect of all this is that the LAUSD had the data to do this, but despite urging by their internal experts chose not to apply the data this way. This has left them open to a story like this LA Times piece, which is now the loudest voice on how this data can and could be used -- the teacher's union and the school district have lost control of the dialogue by holding back on this. This has also led to situations where individual principals are trying to estimate the results using "back of the envelope" calculations. Those principals have found that addressing the low effectiveness teachers is challenging -- coaching helps, sometimes. Figuring out what to do with this data is going to be challenging, but ignoring it isn't going to fix the problems.

For the record, this is a measure of teaching effectiveness I, as a teacher, think I can live with. It focuses on my individual impact without penalizing me for whatever experience my students had in prior years.

The article ends by bemoaning the lack of transparency on individual teacher effectiveness for parents. I do find it strange that in a world where I can get 15 reviews on a vet, a restaurant, or a dentist before choosing to use their services, this kind of data shouldn't be available to parents. What do you think?

(I found this article from a post on Eduwonk, which has a generally similar take to mine, but thinks the story should have left the teachers anonymous and questions the finding that high-poverty schools do not have a higher concentration of low-effectiveness teachers.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Amazing Schools

Via Practical Theory, who is principal of the Science Leadership Academy, one of the amazing schools, the Ladies Home Journal put together profiles of ten pretty inspiring schools.

I think the diversity of the models here is fantastic. In no particular order:

  • An inclusion-focused elementary school in Boston
  • A recycling and conservation-focused high school in California
  • A KIPP elementary school in Houston
  • A Brooklyn high school turning around urban education with small classes and career seminars
  • A marine-focused high school in Florida
  • An expeditionary learning K-8 school in Denver
  • A grades 6-12 boarding school in DC
  • A grades 6-12 self-directed learning environment in Minnesota
  • A high tech, inquiry-based science-focused high school in Philadelphia
  • A public Montessori junior & senior high (grades 7-12) in Cincinnati

It would probably be an amazingly creative and challenging opportunity to teach at any of those schools. However, none of them is in Michigan. So, two questions -- what are the Michigan schools that are experimenting those kinds of learning models? And if we were going to start a school, which of those would be the most exciting models to emulate?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Singapore Math

I've come across the term Singapore Math in a few different contexts in the last few days:

Context one: homeschooling mom describing her seven and half year old's planned curriculum for next year

Context two: a friend of mine who's starting to homeschool her 4.5 year old son also mentioned it (independently of Context 1)

Context three: a KIPP math teacher in DC walks through a Singapore Math-based model approach she learned at their national conference

Context four: the same math teacher posted on where Singapore math sits in the traditional vs. reform spectrum (with bonus video of Tom Lehrer's New Math, one of my favorite geeky songs ever)

All of this finally led me to look up what exactly this Singapore Math stuff is. Here, let me wikipedia it for you. The basic impression I got from the model drawing example posted on Math Rules was that it was visual algebra. The description on wikipedia is more enticing... the part that specifically grabbed my attention and made me post was this: "The principle of teaching mathematical concepts from concrete through pictorial to abstract. For example, introduction of abstract decimal fractions (in Grade 4) is preceded by their pictorial model of centimeters and millimeters on a metric ruler, but even earlier (in Grades 2 and 3) addition and subtraction of decimals is studied in the concrete form of dollars and cents."

This actually sounds to me like it could potentially be a really cool merger of the kind of concrete arithmetic that Lockhart's Lament would ask you to start with, leading into the kinds of applied problems that dy/dan is great at coming up with, all the while concentrating on the "why" beyond the "how".

What do you think? Have you had any experience teaching with Singapore Math? Is it the "New new math"?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Replacing school with the Khan Academy?

Have y'all heard of the Khan Academy? It seems to be one man, Salman Khan, trying to provide a basic math, science, and finance education to the world, for free, via video. (I learned about it from the video in this post by dy/dan, which I recommend.)

What I actually think is most interesting about it, from a pedagogical perspective, is how little Khan does with the technology. It seems like the lessons mostly consist of him talking on audio, and writing on a virtual chalkboard (with multiple colors of chalk!) in the video. From a casual survey of the videos, he occasionally pulls in a screenshot of a website, but given all the fascinating things you could do with pictures, video, and interactive content, that seems pretty limited. It is, in essence, a basic chalk-talk put on the internet. And the curriculum seems largely based on your average standard textbooks in each field. Heck, the video I've linked to below has him solving a textbook word problem from an Algebra I book. Khan is apparently experimenting with an open-source web-based "Exercise Application", used through a google login, that seems to basically be an automated workbook.

This raises so many questions: Is this effective? Could it be useful in a classroom? ("Here, Jimmy, I see you didn't get Solving Systems of Equations by Graphing when I explained it -- maybe this video will help? And then do these practice problems online.") Does it replace a classroom? (Does it depend on the classroom being replaced?) Is it an acceptable substitute when classrooms aren't available? (My physics students in Ghana didn't have a chemistry teacher -- would these videos have been better than just having the textbook?)

I have to admit that I'm having a knee-jerk reaction of, "of course you need a live teacher to explain in a way that accommodates the particular student sitting in front of you and their prior knowledge and speed of learning!", but I'm trying to acknowledge my own bias as a teacher-in-training and be open-minded here. I think at the end of the day, because of the approach and the non-interactivity of the videos they're basically another text -- another way of getting at the material that's presented in the textbook. Can you learn from them? Yes, just as you could learn from reading the a textbook. Do they have advantages over a textbook? Yes, in that they're free to replicate and deliver (as long as you have a working internet connection), and they may work better for those who learn more easily from watching and listening than reading. But they also have all the limitations of static textbook -- they're delivered to a single, generic audience and not customizable based on prior knowledge, areas of interest, speed of learner / need for elaboration and multiple explanations, context of the learner, or the community in which the learner is learning.

There's another interesting question here, which is does Mr. Khan need to be certified or authorized to teach this material? Is he qualified in terms of content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge? The website doesn't list any of his qualifications. One of the linked video profiles of him and the project mentions that he used to work for a hedge fund before launching this project. In some ways, he's the uber-Teach for America kid, reaching out to the underserved of the (English-speaking) world, rather than just the underserved of the US, figuring that what he's learned along the way for content and the curriculum inherent in textbooks qualifies him to do this. (Wait a minute -- he is me, when I taught physics in Africa with the Peace Corps!) Nothing I saw in the few videos I watched seemed wrong, but there also doesn't seem to be any quality control on the content. Does that matter? Is he filling a gap that should have been filled by the formal educational community? Yes, MIT has it's OpenCourseWare, and I think other universities are also starting to jump on that bandwagon, but where's the K-12 version?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Replacing school with World or Warcraft?

So, James Gee says school should be more like games.

Bruce Everiss says games are going to replace school. (Or at least, classrooms and teachers as we know them now.) Using systems such as, which personalize the rate of learning and review of information to each student.

Personally, I think looks interesting for learning factual knowledge at the remember/recall level... not sure about any of the higher orders of the taxonomy. Bruce thinks teachers will evolve into mentors as students move into the real world and try to apply their computer-taught knowledge.

What do you think?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Standardized tests, school structures, and funding

Warning: thinking below is messy and evolving. But writing is helping me work my way through it, and any comments you leave can also be part of that process!

From the introduction to Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov (bolding mine):

So let us assume that students need to have both kinds of skills. They need to be able to read and discuss Shakespeare, but they also need to be able to read a passage they've never seen before and effectively make sense of its meaning, structure, and craft. They need to be able to write a short paragraph giving evidence to support a conclusion. They need to be able to solve for x. Most state tests do an effective job of measuring these skills, and while students who can demonstrate them are not yet fully prepared for college, there are no students who are prepared for college who cannot demonstrate them.

It's also worth noting that teachers who are better at teaching the skills measured on state tests are most often also the teachers who are effective at teaching higher order skills. I know this because within Uncommon Schools, when we correlate the success of our students on tougher internal assessments (essay writing assessments that are far more demanding that state tests, for example), there is a strong correlation between both the teachers and students whose results show the most growth and achievement on the two types. Furthermore, our teachers who achieve the strongest results from state assessments also have the strongest results in ensuring our students' entry into and success in college. In short, student success as measured by state assessments is predictive of their success not just in getting into college but of their succeeding there.

Finally, the correlation between success on even more straightforward assessments (nationally normed test scores) and ultimate academic success should be instructive to us. I often meet educators who take it as an article of faith that basic skills work in tension with higher-order thinking. That is, when you teach students to, say, memorize their multiplication tables, you are not only failing to foster more abstract and deeper knowledge but are interfering with it. This is illogical and, interestingly, one of the tenets of American education not shared by most of the educational systems of Asia, especially those that are the highest-performing public school systems in the world. Those nations are more likely to see that foundational skills like memorizing multiplication tables enable higher-order thinking and deeper insight because they free students from having to use up their cognitive processing capacity in more basic calculations. To have the insight to observe that a more abstract principle is at work in a problem or that there is another way to solve it, you cannot be concentrating on the computation. That part has to happen with automaticity so that as much of your processing capacity as possible can remain free to reflect on what you're doing. The more proficient you are at "lower-order" skills, the more proficient you can become at higher order skills.

So, to sum up, Lemov proposes that state standardized test scores

  1. measure knowledge and skills that are necessary but not sufficient for ongoing academic success,
  2. are predictive of success with higher order skills and higher education success
  3. measure foundational skills that need to be mastered in order to enable higher order thinking and skills.

This makes intuitive sense to me, although I would of course love to see the data supporting it.

I find this excerpt interesting because it articulates why I feel frustrated every time we start discussing in class whether using standardized tests to measure the effectiveness of schools is valid. On the one hand, no, standardized tests clearly cannot measure all the higher order thinking skills that we wish to develop in our students. On the other hand, if a school's students cannot pass the standardized tests, there is a problem. So while having 100% of your students score proficient on a standardized test doesn't necessarily mean that a school is doing a great job, having only 20% or 50% of your students score proficient on a standardized test does, in my mind, mean that the students are not acquiring the foundational competencies they will need in life, and are unlikely to be developing amazing higher order thinking skills while failing to be able to pass the standardized test.*

The question then becomes, can you blame the school for this? I think there's evidence that the traditional public school structure (180 days a year, 7 hours/day) often does an adequate job of educating middle and upper-middle class kids who mostly have a reasonably stable home life and families with enough money to not be worried about food, clothing, housing, and basic security (e.g. my own public school education in Bloomfield Hills). I think there's also solid evidence that that same structure is often inadequate in the face of the poverty and social disadvantages associated with the population in many urban school districts (e.g. Detroit).

So what happens when you have an inadequate structure and you impose high stakes standardized testing upon it? One of two things: you change the structure to something that works better, or you try to game the testing system. Charter schools like KIPP and Uncommon Schools change the structure -- longer school days, longer school years, highly disciplined approaches to teaching and learning -- and see good test results, which the author above ties to improved higher order thinking. There are of course other, more progressive approaches to changing the structure, such as adopting place-based curricula or addressing health issues and incorporating the broader community like the Harlem Children's Zone. However, the schools that are stuck with rigid curricula and inadequate instruction time and resources for their students to overcome the disadvantages the kids bring to school have no recourse but to try to game the system. This results in the much-decried teaching to the test, or focusing all extra resources on the "bubble" kids who will make the difference between meeting the average yearly improvement targets or not, or sometimes even cheating by teachers and administrators.

So if the end goal is to make the public education system serve all students at a level that at least lets them meet the minimum standards enshrined in standardized testing (and based on the arguments Lemov makes, I actually think that's a reasonable goal), the key question becomes how can we change the structure of the schools that aren't currently achieving that minimum standard. One approach is the extended school day and year and highly intensive teacher development and involvement embodied in the most successful charters. This is the approach the Obama administration seems to have latched onto, but it seems to have significant barriers to broad implementation in a public education system dominated by unions that would demand to have their teachers compensated for the extra teaching time in an economic climate where raising funding levels would be very difficult.

There are clearly other innovative approaches out there -- inquiry-based learning, place-based schools, and the Harlem Children's Zone. However, the advocates of those models don't seem to be making the case for scaling up and rolling out those models in other contexts, in a language that resonates with those awarding large amounts of private or public funding. I'm going to speculate that part of the barrier here is that the advocates of these models tend to be of a more progressive mindset, and tend to dismiss standardized tests. If instead the advocates showed that their approach of teaching beyond the tests also prepared students to meet the "table stakes" of proficiency in standardized test, they would have a much clearer way to "demonstrate success" and attract both the private funding that has been propelling organizations such as KIPP and the public funding currently being awarded through the Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation (i3) funds.

What do you think?


* A 90% proficient rate might be okay, on the theory that 10% of your students might have test-specific disabilities that make it difficult for them to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in the standardized testing environment.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Muddling through the ideologies

The more I read, the more confused I get.

It seems like there are (at least) two schools of thought out there in the educational universe:

School of Thought A (Let's call it "conservative", although there's pretty clear evidence that it's being implemented as much by the Obama administration as it was by the previous administration): "Based on the metrics we have available (such as the National Assessment of Education Progress), the quality of public education outcomes in the U.S. has declined over the years. Our schools are not serving our students well, either compared to prior years or compared to other countries. This seems to be correlated with a shift away from traditional, canonical curricula to mushy, ill-defined, "child-centered" pedagogies. We should fix this, through strong state and national standards, and the way we will know whether we have fixed it is through demonstrated improvement in those same metrics (standardized test scores)."

School of Thought B (Let's call it "progressive"): "People with conservative agendas have used unsuitable instruments (standardized tests) to measure educational outcomes and manipulated the data to make it seem as if public schools are failing, when actually they are doing just as well as they ever were. The real problem is that our schools are inequitably funded and resourced. We should fix this, through better funding of schools for all children, and we should implement progressive-child centered learning strategies rather than national standards. We should measure outcomes through individual portfolios and narratives of student progress. Standardized tests drive schools to teach how to take tests rather than how to learn, and should be eliminated."

As someone fairly new to these debates, I have the following questions:

  1. Is the above a fair summary of the two schools of thought in question? (Acknowledging that this applies some fairly broad brush strokes and probably neglects many fine points of debate and dissension within the ranks.)
  2. What do the national and international standardized test trends really say? How can both sides claim with confidence that the NAEP data supports their claims when properly analyzed? Is there data that supports a decline in quality of U.S. public schools either relative to their own past performance or relative to other nations? Does this data hold up when disaggregated by socio-economic status, parental education levels, english-language learner status, special education status, and other factors external to the school but with potentially strong influence on student outcomes?
  3. Within the conservative school of thought, I have not come across much debate on whether standardized tests measure the educational outcomes that really matter, and what effect their imposition has on the outcomes being measured. Which is to say, do we acknowledge that this is driving 'teaching to the test", and if so, do we think it's a good thing? If not, what should we do about it? Does this discussion exist? If so, where?
  4. Within the progressive school of thought, I have not come across much debate on what metrics students, parents, communities, and society at large should use to measure schooling outcomes in a way that is comparable across schools, districts, and states. Which is to say, if not through standardized tests, then how should we identify the bright beacons of hope and the areas that need improvement and use those to continuously improve our education system? Does this discussion exist? If so where?

I would love to be pointed to reading material that addresses these questions. Specifically, I would love to read a non-partisan take on #1 and #2 (if such a thing exists). And I would love to read an article by a leading conservative scholar addressing #3 and a leading progressive scholar addressing #4.

Any recommendations?

Assessment without grades

Continuing my obsession with assessment, today I've found myself entangled in a bunch of posts about whether grades are useful, and if not, what they should be replaced with.

Jason Bedell makes the excellent point that a traditional letter grade or percentage of points aggregated from various assignments conflates several factors

  • Mastery of the material (Can I meet X learning standard?)
  • Timing of the learning (Could I meet it for the first homework assignment? The quiz? The final test? The week after the final test?)
  • Student organization and motivation (Did I show up for class / turn in my assignments / review for the test?)

(Or if you're the pointy-haired boss, two of the three may be sufficient.)

Because it's traditional, the A/B/C system is fairly well understood by everyone, and I would even argue that future colleges and employers are comfortable with the conflation of learning / timing / organization, because speed, mastery, and organization are also all important for success in those contexts.

However, there's a fairly good point to be made that in terms of fostering real learning on the parts of all our students, and making conversations and partnerships with parents easier, untangling those three elements is useful. Jason does it by using standards-based grading, where each student is assigned points for meeting each learning standard (e.g. "Define and classify special types of quadrilaterals”) between 1 ("attempts the problem") and 4 ("demonstrates thorough understanding). He doesn't think students should be penalized for learning more slowly, so there aren't standards around how fast you master the material. If organization is important, then it would get it's own standard or set of standards, rather than being conflated with mastery of the material.

I'm not exactly sure how this would look in a classroom I was in charge of, but I'm happy to have the food-for-thought. (More thinking on the topic of abolishing grading here, which I'm hoping to eventually work my way through.)

On a related note, Dan Pink says what matters for job performance and satisfaction (once you're paying people enough that they don't have to worry about money) is:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

If you release students from your timetable (autonomy), focus on mastery of standards in your grading scheme, and help students find the relevance of the material to their lives (purpose), does that satisfy all the elements?

Also, what does that look like for teachers? In public schools, NCLB has certainly encouraged a move away from autonomy towards standardized curricula, and a focusing of purpose on test scores. Not super-hopeful for future job satisfaction in that context.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

If I were teaching economics...

I would use this video as part of my supply & demand unit:

Getting readers and viewers interested in the developing world - an educational analogy

In my internet wanderings today, I've come across two interesting pieces in the Guardian. Germain Greer reviewing the book, Half the Sky, and Jonathan Freedland discussing media portrayals of the developing world.

Both pieces hinge on the essential dilemma of how to get the media-consuming public in the developed world aware of and engaged in the issues of the developing world. They discuss how this is often accomplished by resorting to oversimplified caricatures of victimized or heroic developing-world characters, losing the complexity and color of life in the country being focused on. Often the reader or viewer is engaged through the use of heroic avatars -- the Americans or Europeans who have swooped in to save the hapless locals -- at the expense of portraying the ability of the locals to save themselves. And often the complexities (and complicities) of the interactions between the developed and developing worlds are neglected.

Life in the developing world is abstract, complicated, and messy for most media consumers in the developed world, and the media therefore has a hard time engaging its audience in a well-rounded, complex, authentic view of that world.

There's an educational analogy here. Africa : US TV viewers :: physics : secondary school students.

Greer mostly points out problematic aspects of Half the Sky's approach to engaging its readers, without proposing alternatives. Freedland, however, proposes three ways for the media to engage consumers in a more authentic view of the developing world.

  1. Find the active drama going on within the story, "not a crude battle of victims against villains, but [the] subtle mix of conflicting, shifting political interests."
  2. Replace occasional, flashy, "parachute-in", front-page stories with a sustained stream of small, "inside-page" stories that over time piece together a well-rounded mosaic of the complexity of the subject.
  3. Insist that "these foreign stories are not so foreign" -- unearth the links between the reader's world and the world of the story. (His example ties Lithium used to power laptops and iPhones to the environmental problems around Chile's largest lithium mine.)

So, to carry forward the analogy, what does that look like for Physics (or almost any subject):

  1. Find the active dramas in the subject -- don't just talk about gravity as a given, talk about how we came to understand gravity the way we do now over time; and don't just teach science as a set of facts in the textbook, introduce current scientific debates (dark matter, the expansion of and eventual fate of the universe, etc.).
  2. Don't just cover a topic once and consider it taught. Come back to important topics repeatedly over time, touching on them in relation to new topics and new applications. Cover potential energy with relation to the physics of motion, and come back to it in the context of electrical circuits and the structure of the atom.
  3. Make the connection between the subject being taught and students' daily lives. Voltage isn't just a symbol in a circuit diagram -- it also determines what kind of battery a student needs for a given electronic device. And distance = velocity * time isn't just an equation, it tells you how long it will take you to get to school each day.

In the end, I actually feel pretty lucky. I think physics, earth science, and math are all much easier to teach than the politics, religion, social issues, and history of Africa. And I get a whole school year of classes to work with, rather than limited TV time or print space. I just need to get my students to feel the same way.

Monday, August 2, 2010

How not to do it

I'm 75% done with the Bloodborne Pathogen Training we're required to take before going into the classroom. Things that are educationally wrong with this training:

  1. It's completely unengaging -- they're discussing life-and-death stuff like how not to get HIV, and they've managed to make it boring
  2. By making it a narrated slide presentation where everything the narrator says is illustrated on the slide
  3. With lots of bullets.
  4. It's non-interactive -- so far I'm on slide 34 of 39 and at no point have I been required to take any mini-quizes on whether I've absorbed any of the key points. All I have to do is listen to the narrator drone and hit "next" at the right point.
  5. It's unmotivating -- it exudes, "you're watching this slide show because it's the cheapest and easiest way for your employer to fulfill some bureaucratic mandate".

I'm 15 minutes into a stupid 20 minute presentation, and I'm so bored I'm venting about it here because going back to it sounds so painful.

What would a good blood-borne pathogen training look like? In a live setting there would be some story-telling of experiences people have had with unsafe sharps or blood pouring out of some HIV-positive students' nose. And then the class would propose from prior knowledge all the ways you can get infected, with the teacher filling in any blanks / correcting any misconceptions. And then when we had to be told that our employer will have a "exposure control plan" we'd actually get copies of one and have to find relevant information in it for various emergency scenarios. And maybe at the end of it I would have learned something other than, "online slideshow trainings are mind-numbing."

If it's important enough to have us do a training on this, why isn't it important enough to do it well? And how on earth can a school of education inflict such a horrible example of pedagogy of its students?

Update: The last three slides did have true or false questions that could be answered by most untrained chimpanzees. Hurrah interactivity! Although none were as good as the radioactive materials handling training at Fermilab, where one of the questions was (I wish I was joking): "You can safely eat a radioactive source. (T/F)"

P.S. I wonder if this is where all the rhetoric at BP about "Safety First" goes bad and turns into the world's biggest oil spill ever. Safety is SO IMPORTANT that we must inflict hugely boring (but consistent!) training on our employees that treats them like chimpanzees and enforces in them that safety is about checking boxes, not applying your actual brain and spidey senses to averting disaster.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

EDUC 504: Blog accounting

Just to make this as clear and easy as possible for Kristin and Jeff when they start grading the ED504 blog assignment:

Blog posts responding to each week's readings and post-reflection on class are pretty clearly labelled in their titles, but for ease of navigation:

June 30: Reflection

July 9: Readings, Reflection

July 16: Readings, Reflection

July 23: Readings, Reflection

July 30: Readings, Reflection

(Yes there are multiple other posts on this blog, and will continue to be, I hope... it's a multitasking blog -- part blogging assignment for the EDUC 504 - Teaching with Technology and part just Emily Blogging Ed School.)

Week of July 16

Edublogger posts read:

Comments left: I commented on Chris Sessum's post discussed in class: Who's Cheating Whom?

Week of July 23

Edublogger posts read:

Comments left: I commented on the Yellow Lights post -- I thought it was potentially a good example of place-based education, which is one of the reform topics in 649

Week of July 30

Edublogger posts read:

Comments left: I commented on the Tower of Trimph post (currently awaiting moderation -- I was happy to see an example of extrinsic motivation (stickers) transitioning to intrinsic motivation with a challenging student)

Response post: My response to the Learning is Messy post is here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

EDUC 504/649: How to make a concept map navigation of a wiki

A few weeks ago I was searching high and low for a solution to making a pretty concept map with text links to use as a navigation / home page for a wiki. I eventually got smart and asked Kristin for help, and in the end we came up with a pretty good solution.

You can see the end result here, on the home page for our place-based education wiki.

Here's the solution Kristin helped me come up with, in case it saves someone else some time some day:

The concept map was created using -- a free, intuitive online concept mapping tool that supports collaboration with multiple users, much like a wiki.

Within, the text label of any concept bubble can be converted to a link by adding the link address in front of the text and putting the text in brackets. For example typing the following in a bubble:[Google] will create a link in the text bubble that looks and works like this: Google.

Finally, the concept map can be embedded in your wikispaces page as follows:

  1. Click on the "Menu" button on the lower right of any sheet and choose the "HTML embed code" option.
  2. Copy the resulting html embed code from the box on the page and insert it as a widget in your wikispaces page, by
  3. Clicking the "Widget" button on the Edit menu bar, selecting the "Other HTML" tab, and copying the embed code from into the box
  4. You may also wish to alter the size of the embedded box by changing the width and height parameters within the embedded html codes.

EDUC 504: Makin' it real (Reflections on July 30 Class)

The MAC alumni who came as guest speakers today were awesome! It was great to get a feel for such a variety of settings, content areas, and ways the content we have covered and will cover in this class can be used in real teaching situations. I'm really grateful that we had the whole spread from West Bloomfield to Brooklyn in terms of diversity, SES, and technology provided by the school.

Things I will be looking up / keeping in mind:

General principles

  • Looking in the dusty corners for unused tech that could be put to cool uses
  • Being prepared to be the local "expert" in anything new I bring into the classroom (see this post)
  • The importance of a real, authentic audience in increasing engagement, performance, and ownership
  • "Did you know" by Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod (Shift Happens)
  • Creative ways to use some of the tools below (google forms, response systems, wall-wisher) to make grading faster and easier
  • Use a beginning of the year survey to get a feel for access -- who has reliable internet access, computer, printer, etc. at home
  • May need to explicitly teach students how to use word processing software, even if they're totally at home with social networking
  • In low-access contexts, need to give kids lots of time and in-school or after-school access for any assignment requiring internet accedss
  • The importance of real experiences in addition to virtual ones -- real dissections, egg drops, bridge building, etc.
  • The usefulness of blurring the distinction between work and play, while still making the educational goals explicit at some point in the processs

Tools & applications

  • Wallwisher -- for reading journals, for room norms (and appropriate use of teacher-approval on posts)
  • for using cell phones instead of microphones to record audio
  • How I can use Skype to bring all my awesome earth scientist friends into my classroom
  • Microsoft's "mouse mischief" as a cheap student response system (seems to work only with Windows)
  • Sliderocket for online slide presentations
  • Low-tech substitutes for computers and cameras -- flip books
  • Gallery-walks to have students practice critiquing skills with each other
  • International Poetry Guild through ICS -- for my English-teaching friends

I thought there were a lot of provocative questions in the last half hour of class:

  • Where's the balance between using technology to "meet students where they are" and drawing a clear distinction between "at home" and "at school" uses of technology? (I think this one captures my discomfort with AIM office hours -- it's definitely on the blurry line between the two, with an "at-home" technology used for "at-school" purposes.)
  • What are the safety implications for being "always-on" and therefore more aware of safety bulletins issued by campus police, for instance, versus being "always-on" to the point where you're not aware of your surroundings because you're focused on your phone while walking or driving?
  • How can you have students help you develop appropriate guidelines for when and how to use technology in class?
  • If someone's playing World of Warcraft during class, is it the teacher's problem because they're either not engaging enough or not setting and enforcing the right classroom policies? Or is it the student's responsibility to bring the right mature, scholarly habits to class?

I don't have clear answers to any of those right now, but I'm looking forward to mulling them over as I prepare to actually start operating in a real classroom in September. Happy August!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

EDUC 504: I would give this post a clever title but I'm too distracted by my multitasking (Reflections on readings for July 30)

Reading: Klapperstuck & Kearns, The Wired Life: The Public and Private Spheres of the Gen M Community

I'm apparently not really a member of "Gen M", because I can remember a life that wasn't wired... I remember when computers were really only good for word processing and whatever games your parents bought in a box and loaded onto the computer using big, black 5.5" discs. On the other hand, I do seem to have at least some Gen M attitudes.

  • Watch TV while texting friends on cell phone and doing homework and using the Internet? Usually not... sometimes TV + internet.
  • Media used to keep me connected to my peers and the world at large at all times of day and night? Yes.
  • Sit silently next to my husband while we both catch up on Facebook? Um, sometimes.
  • Want ad content to be tailored to my interests? I'd rather see an ad for a cool new yoga mat than high heels any day.
  • Consider online privacy to be a matter of controlling which friends see which posts on my blog / facebook / twitter and then using those media to broadcast specifically to those friend groups? Definitely.

And I'm still not sure I see why the last one is bad, although that seems to be the implication of the article. I moved away from Boston three years ago and am still in daily contact with some of my best friends there because twitter and livejournal and facebook let us communicate with each other in an efficient manner. Yes I have to trust the web site in question to observe the privacy settings I select, but that's true of every online transaction from online banking to putting data in google docs -- all of these depend on a reputation for security and observing your privacy settings in order to have people trust them. I'm not sure why I should worry more about facebook than about my bank or google docs.

Yes, one of your friends can go and repeat what you said outside your walled garden, but that's just a real life problem translated onto the internet -- the problem is the friend, not the medium. And yes, for every blog post I write I spend at least a few seconds choosing between the options of "totally public" (fine for a funny xkcd cartoon), "locked to friends" (most posts which have any sort of identifying personal information), and "private" (it's only there for me to read). I don't use the last one often, but when most of my journal entries are ones I feel comfortable sharing with friends, it makes a certain amount of sense to keep the totally private ones in the same place for organizational and backup purposes.

I guess for me it becomes more problematic when "friends" online are not friends from real life. 99% of people who can see my online "private" information are people I've met and been at least friendly with in real life; the vast majority of the other 1% are no more than 1 degree removed from me -- the second cousin I've never met, the friend of a friend who takes cool pictures. When it crosses over into the territory of, "someone I only know through their online presence" that feels much more sketchy to me. I need the real world validation of the online projection, even if it was in high school 15 years ago.

As a teacher who's thinking of using things like wikis and podcasts and blogs in the context of a classroom, the part wherein the authors wring their hands over whether students consider the privacy (or not) of uploaded content is relevant, I suppose. Although I would in general imagine that anything safe for class consumption is also safe for public consumption (that at least seems to be the assumption with the blogs we've made for this class).

So it seems like I'm not fully appreciating the concerns of the authors or the points they're trying to make because the Gen M experience is too close to my own, as they describe it. I can't tell if this means I'll have an easy time of it because I'll get where my students are coming from, or I'm setting myself up for a pratfall because we're really more different than I think.

Project Runway and Education: How much are you Tim vs. Heidi?

I tripped somewhat spectacularly on my way to class yesterday, resulting in a trip to the doctor for my sprained ankle, a gimpy 1.5 hours of class (rather than the scheduled 3), and an afternoon of quality time with my cats and my DVR as I RICEd.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I may have watched several consecutive episodes of Project Runway, and I'm a little bit enthralled by the interactions between the contestants, Tim Gunn, and the judges (personified for this purposes of this post as Heidi Klum, although Heidi is always accompanies by 3 other judges).

I'll start by acknowledging the overall inappropriateness of the competitive atmosphere of the show ("Remember, one of you is going home!") for a classroom. On the other hand, there's something intriguing about the way each challenge (assignment) is always interpreted by the contestants (students) in very unique, individual ways. I think any assignment in an real classroom with enough room for student interpretation to showcase real higher order thinking is likely to result in this kind of diversity of responses:

(The challenge was to make a red carpet dress for Heidi Klum -- two of these co-won, and one was a "catastrophe", can you tell which is the loser?)

There's also something intriguing in the way Tim Gunn tries to ask the students leading questions to make sure they're really on the right path without ever coming out and saying, "I think this is a mistake." On the other hand, the judges are blunt, direct, and to the point, praising skill and good taste and excoriating the disasters, but after it's too late to make any changes in course. In most classrooms these two roles are merged into a single person. The teacher has to strike a balance between warm, fuzzy Tim Gunn-like probing / leading (Socratic?) questions and cold, final Heidi Klum & Co. judging (assessment).

How much of each do you put your time into as a teacher? Does the balance vary by age or ability of the student?

(P.S. Yes, it is hilarious that I, who have the fashion sense of an armadillo, find Project Runway so fascinating. I think it's the raw creativity on display that I find so compelling.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

EDUC 504/649: Accountability - An Alternative to Multiple Choice?

I keep coming back to (harping on?) this theme in various classes:

  1. Yes, standardized tests can suck as a metric for real, well-rounded learning (e.g. can you write your way out of a paper back, do a high level math proof, or do actual science?)
  2. Yes, there are reasons we use them -- parents and our communities deserve some way to see how we're doing with their children and their tax dollars (i.e. accountability) and standardized tests provide objectivity and efficiency in attempting to meet that goal.
  3. What's the alternative that provides accountability, objectivity, and efficiency?

Courtesy of a post by the Learning is Messy blog, I found myself reading a Washington Post blog about a potential viable alternative, which led me to a Phi Delta Kappan article describing the alternative.

The article, entitled "Keeping accountability systems accountable" is by Martha Foote, and was published in January 2007. It profiles the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which is a coalition of 28 high schools in New York that focus on "inquiry-based methods of learning with classrooms steeped in discusion, project-based assignments, and student choice." These schools have have replaced standardized tests (such as the New York Regents Exam) with performance-bassed assessments, including

  • Literary essays that demonstrate analytic thinking
  • Problem-solving in mathematics that demonstrates high level conceptual knowledge
  • Original science experiments that demonstrate understanding of the scientific method
  • Social studiesl research papers that demonstrate use of evidence and argument.

The quality of the assessments is measured using rubrics. There are external evaluators involved -- experts in the disciplines and teachers from other schools. Overall, the system is held accountable by the Performance Assessment Review Board, which has lots of nationally known educators, business leaders, and public figures on it.

That all sounds great - I love the assessments! However, I also have some qualms / questions:

  • The website is a little fuzzy on whether the "external experts" evaluate every student or only to spot check internal grading by teachers within the school. I think that for objectivity and cross-school comparability, probably external evaluators would need to be used all the time, but maybe I'm too cynical?
  • It also doesn't really speak to how teacher feedback would feed into the projects (or not) -- does my teacher read a draft of my analytical essay or help me if I get stuck in my higher-level math proof? If they didn't help me make sure my science experiment was safe, they would be negligent. If my proposed procedure isn't safe in the first draft, do I fail, or am I helped? If I'm helped, is it still an authentic assessment of my learning?
  • While 28 schools is a great start, it doesn't really speak to whether it would be realistic to roll this out over a whole state or (eventually) the whole country. I'd like to think the answer was yes, but I don't really understand it well enough to see how that could work.

Brian Crosby at Learning is Messy ties this and a recent article about standardized test scores declining in DC into a conversation about whether Race to the Top is encouraging real innovation or just helping schools making students better standardized takers. (As a side note: Second round RTTP finalists were announced today, and Michigan isn't on the list.)

What do you think? Could something like the New York Performance Standards work more broadly? Would it encourage the right kinds of teaching?

Friday, July 23, 2010

EDUC 504: Expertise (Reflections on July 23 Class)

So, today I found that 5 minutes of trying to use Garage Band last week to make a recording for our "Media Embedded Document" assignment and 10 minutes of tutorial-watching and experimentation last night made me an "expert" at podcasting. I think in my old life I would have thought something snarky about how, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed woman is Queen." I'm trying instead to think about it terms of Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development and peer-facilitated learning. Wish me luck. (Please imagine Queen Barbie here to be one-eyed.)

I'm also still trying to work out how to make my classroom more like a game.

Would it help to have a way of keeping score -- geology money, instead of monopoly money?

What other mechanisms do games use that could be incorporated into a classroom? I think Stephanie's right that there's a certain element of fantasy to some of the games I've loved.

(My current favorite is this one.)

But there also tends to be a strong social element to playing games I like -- it's a fun way of spending time with family and friends. (So much so that the favor at my wedding was playing cards, which some of my family then used to play games instead of dancing:) The fun isn't just in the spending time -- it's also in a healthy competitiveness.

I need to think more about the interplay between competitiveness and game motivation, and whether there is a way to have some students "win" without making others feel like "losers".

Also, (inspired by many of my classmates) I decided to experiment with pictures this post. Which means it took just as much time as my prose posts, but ended up with a lot fewer words. You may sigh with relief now.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

EDUC 504: Podcast test

So it looks like I can record my voice, add a snazzy canned track, and I think (hope) upload it to my blog. I declare victory for the evening.

Update: Fail. The podcast appears in my MacJournal window, but not on blogspot. (will have to work on this more tomorrow... or host it somewhere else on line?)

Second Update: I can manually insert the m4a file as a video, but would still love to be able to do it from MacJournal... will have to investigate further tomorrow.


EDUC 504: Is this thing on? (Reflections on Readings for June 23)

PLN (Personal Learning Network)

Two (okay three) good edublogger posts I read this week:

Geektastic moment of the week: I've figured out how to share my twitter feed here on this very blog with you. You're welcome. (If you also want to be geektastic, choose "Design" from the top bar, "Add a Gadget" on the right-side of the layout, and search for a twitter gadget.)

Good video games and good learning -- James Paul Gee

I love this quote: 'A science like biology is not a set of facts. In reality, it is a “game” certain types of people “play”.'

I think this is completely true. However, while the facts without the game are no fun, the game without some started facts also isn't very fun -- I've read lots of research papers where I didn't really understand the base vocabulary and concepts; it was frustrating.

I'm not much of a video-game player (beyond DDR, which is more kinetic than problem-solving), so I don't have much of a frame of reference to evaluate Gee's claims about what learning principles good games incorporate. However, I think his discussion of Identity is a little too simple -- you don't turn overnight into a Physicist in order to learn Physics... you play with adopting parts of the identity as you learn the material; it's more iterative and gradual and tentative or experimental than Gee makes it sound.

I also have a hard time imagining what it would look like for students to help "write" the domain and curriculum they study. Is having them suggest and chose which experiments to do within a set unit enough choice to engender engagement? Or do they have to be able to chose their own units? I also wonder how this fits with the "customization" point.

The point about low consequences of failure encouraging risk-taking is well taken -- I think something that's surprised me about this program is how open professors are to grading revised versions of assignments. I think this probably increases learning but also increases work for the teacher, and I wonder how well it plays out with 150 students.

What does "a sense of agency and control" look like in a 6th grade earth science class? (Just for instance...)

I love the idea of "levelling up" in a class, but wonder how the competitiveness of that would play out in a classroom where some students would probably level up faster than others? Would the slower students disengage? Or do we do this inherently anyway, so making it explicit can't hurt (any more)? I suppose you could have a whole class "levelling up", but then are you violating the individual student's ability to customize / not keeping the fastest students challenged?

"Just in Time" is a concept tied pretty firmly in my head to inventory management of manufacturing processes... it's challenging to see it used for information supplied in learning processes.

"Pleasantly frustrating" -- congratulations! You've just reinvented Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development!

What does "system thinking" look like in the classroom? Lots of interdisciplinary projects? Group projects with strong specialties within and strong links between groups?

Overall, it's fun to think about how school could function more like games (not just on video), but I feel like I'd need a lot more concrete examples to help me figure out what they could actually look like.

Big Thinkers: James Paul Gee on Grading with Games

"Work in a group where the group is smarter than the smartest person in the group" -- wouldn't you really want a group that was smarter than the sum of the smartnesses of the people in the group? Otherwise they might as well all work on their own... there needs to be synergy to justify the increased overhead of group communication.

"Games don't separate learning and assessment" -- what would that look like in school?

I like the idea that you need engagement with the actual chemistry to give meaning to the textbook -- very Dewey, Dr. Gee.

While I'm loving all the science examples, is this equally applicable to other content areas?

I love how his whole universe is "Baby Boomers" and "Kids These Days" -- not sure where I fit in all my 30-something glory.

It seems like his "passion communities" and "fan fic" examples are about displacing / replacing school -- it's hard to see how to incorporate learning from them into schools... but don't worry everyone, "Global Competition" is going to scare us into innovation!

Let's hear it for "making teaching sexy" (but not in the lawsuit-generating way)!

EDUC 649: How getting a B is helping me clarify my educational philosophy

EDUC 649: Foundational Perspectives on Education Reform is a class that covers lots of critical topics for a teacher in training -- No Child Left Behind, the Obama Administration's proposed revisions to NCLB, Philosophies of Education, approaches to constructive conversation and consensus building, lots of great stuff.

It's also built very much around a philosophy of "learning by doing" with a rather unique grading scheme:

  • Participate in all the classes and in a group project on one of four reform topics = C
  • C & Write a Philosophy of Education = B
  • B & Undertake Educational Advocacy Activities = A

There don't seem to be tons of quality criteria attached to any of these activities, other than the somewhat nebulous "satisfactory completion."

I am totally fine with being responsible for full participation in class and (at least in theory) for being responsible for a content-related intellectual project such as the reform wiki. (I'm not a huge fan of group work in practice, but I acknowledge it as a valid form of knowledge building and assessment, and as requiring the deployment of many skills that also come in handy in real life as a professional working in a team of educators. I would also be more thrilled if the reform topic was one that I or my group had selected from the whole universe of reforms rather than being one of four choices proposed by the professor, but acknowledge her authority to guide the intellectual content of the course.) I'm also completely fine with being responsible for creating a philosophy of education -- being pushed to crystalize my beliefs about the purposes and practices of education are part of the reason I'm in this program.

However, I have a big huge block around being requested to undertake an advocacy project as part of this course. I have exactly the same, stubborn, "you can't compel me to express my values or my spirituality" feeling that got me into a big huge fight with my father in high school over whether there was any point in compelling church attendance. I am not at all opposed to either activism or church attendance. I think the former is often the seed of significant change in our democracy, and the latter is something I've been doing happily and voluntarily since the day I left home. I just feel like both are too important as expressions of my personal, uncoerced values and beliefs to be tied in any way to "doing it because someone told me to" or "doing it for a class."

Many of my classmates have awesome ideas for things to do for their advocacy projects: Creating a group to work on a more authentic, concrete, engaging math curriculum. Engaging with downtown Detroit to make a cultural center or bring more science extracurricular activities into the schools. Creating resources to help implement place-based education locally or nationally. I could happily contribute to any of those projects. But I can't do it for a grade. And (this is the part that seems to be my unique stumbling block) even getting a grade for something I would otherwise happily do independently makes it feel inauthentic and lacking in integrity.

So, I've decided to "put my money where my mouth is" -- a few weeks ago we were talking in class about whether there were any students in this program who really didn't care about grades. And I claimed not to. I think that's still true -- I'm here to learn how to be a better teacher, and to get certified so I can teach in the state of Michigan. I'm not here to get a 4.0. I value my integrity and independence more than I value an A in this class, so I'll my best to do the parts of the course I'm comfortable with "satisfactorily" and be fine with the B that merits under the grading scheme of this class.

As a classmate astutely noted at the end of class today, I may have a problem with authority. Although the professor also correctly noted that I've submitted to authority in other aspects of this program and this class. I think this paradox fundamentally reflects what I think the purpose of education is, and what I'm implicitly signing up for when I participate as a student in a formal educational venture such as this. I believe the purpose of education is to help the students develop a well-rounded knowledge base and to help them refine their concepts and beliefs about the world through intellectual debate and challenge.

I do NOT believe the purpose of education is to make students into activists. What they chose to do with the knowledge and beliefs I help them refine is entirely up to them and their consciences and beliefs, and inaction is as valid a choice as action. If inaction is not a valid choice, then I think we need to acknowledge that the teacher is imposing his or her value system on the students, which gets to the heart of why I find this so conflicting. It seems a very thin line to me between, "do anything, as long as you do something" and "do something that I think will be useful", which is in turn only a few small steps from propaganda and indoctrination.

I realize that there are well-subscribed schools of educational philosophy out there which have making students into activists as their goal, and I acknowledge the right of this course's professor to model what that looks like. But it's not my philosophy, and now I know that at the gut level as well as the intellectual level.

I've been writing this trying to figure out why all of the above made me (want to) cry for half of class today, after starting to articulate it during "circle time". I think it's some combination of frustration / sadness / disappointment that I've come to a point (so soon!) in this program that my desire to fully participate in the learning experiences offered and my core feelings of integrity have ended up conflicting. I wish I could see a way to resolve this right now that was satisfying both for the professor and for me, but other than trying to fully articulate the issue, I'm out of other ideas right now.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

EDUC 649: Does the canonical math curriculum suck? (Lockhart's Lament)

Shari sent around this article today. The whole 25 page pdf is a fairly entertaining and thought-provoking read -- I recommend it.

To tease your appetite, here is my favorite quote from p.24, when he's doing "an honest course catalogue for K-12 mathematics":

"TRIGONOMETRY. Two weeks of content are stretched to semester length by masturbatory definitional runarounds. Truly interesting and beautiful phenomena, such as the way the sides of a triangle depend on its angles, will be given the same emphasis as irrelevant abbreviations and obsolete notational conventions, in order to prevent students from forming any clear idea as to what the subject is about. Students will learn such mnemonic devices as “SohCahToa” and “All Students Take Calculus” in lieu of developing a natural intuitive feeling for orientation and symmetry. The measurement of triangles will be discussed without mention of the transcendental nature of the trigonometric functions, or the consequent linguistic and philosophical problems inherent in making such measurements. Calculator required, so as to further blur these issues."

The central thesis is that mathematics is an art, a way of thinking about and interacting with the world driven by curiosity and a drive to elegant, satisfying logic, while the mathematics curriculum taught in the US for the past many years has been equivalent to teaching only the notation and techniques of that art. The (effective) analogies he uses are teaching music by teaching only how to read musical notation and understand music theory, and teaching art by teaching only how to understand color theory and paint by numbers.

On the one hand -- he's totally right. The math curriculum we teach our students in the U.S. today is artificially divorced from its history and its natural curiosity and elegance.

On the other hand, I think he's a little bit too blithe in the way he dismisses the fact that the kinds of math notation and techniques taught in our schools are actually needed for most of the high tech professions in the world today -- computer science and statistics in all it's multitudes of applications and every kind of engineering and physical science and even the life sciences as they drill down into protein structures and DNA analysis.

It's as if one attacked an English curriculum for only teaching students to read and write with correct grammar and never engaging them in literature. A valid criticism, but if you taught them all about literature without ever teaching them to read and write themselves, it would be equally unbalanced. Lockhart acknowledges the need for balance here, but if I have to choose between my kids joyfully exploring the elegance of number theory and my kids being able to do arithmetic, I chose arithmetic. Maybe that's too pragmatic, but I want them to know whether they're being cheated when their change is handed back to them just as much as I want them to be able to read the news or a sign posted in a store or directions at the airport. Or maybe I just lack the imagination to picture a curriculum that effectively accomplishes both, simultaneously, across every school in the nation.

Which brings us to my third hand (just call me Vishnu): he also readily admits that most of the math teachers in the U.S. today (including myself and most of my colleagues in this certification program who are majoring in math) were "raised" in the current system, and have not ever done much (if any) real, artistic mathematics themselves. He doesn't really propose any solution for this, but unless all the math teachers in the nation start suddenly reading Pythagoras, Newton, and Green on their summer breaks or attending boot camps taught by math professors who can bring themselves down to the secondary-teacher level, I'm not sure there's a ready remedy. (I actually think the second part of that is harder to put together than the first -- my favorite quote about teaching math came from a friend who was teaching college-level calculus for the third time: "Every time I teach this, it becomes more obvious.") Also, we'd need to rewrite the standard curricula that have become so widespread -- just as a side hobby.

So... an interesting, thought provoking article. Which brings me back to a theme that's emerging in several of our classes. It goes like this:

  • Standardized testing is a bad way to test real learning, and frequently drives bad teaching that attempts to achieve good standardized test results but fails to enable good learning. (e.g. a math curriculum divorced from the art of real mathematics)
  • But standardized tests exist for a few reasons: we need to be able to measure the outcomes of our education system in a way a) that does not absorb all the free resources of time and money in the world and b) allows us to objectively compare outcomes across classrooms, schools, districts, and states.
  • We need to be able to measure outcomes in an objective way because it's the only way to know where we as educators are doing well and where we need to improve, at the student, teacher, and school levels.

So... what solutions exist or could be created that allow us to measure outcomes in an efficient, objective way that also measure real learning (such as the artistic ability to struggle with a math puzzle and come up with an elegant solution)? Or, should we concentrate instead of making all teachers capable of good teaching that drives real learning and also (incidentally) enables good standardized test results?

Friday, July 16, 2010

EDUC 504: An experiment in liveblogging (Reflections on July 16 class)

Lesson learned -- setting up 60 twitter accounts at once may be problematic. Also, Joe's right -- it's both distracting and enriching to have people tweeting during discussion. I found myself largely focusing on one or the other rather integrating both in a good way in real time.

Thumbs up on the student-facilitated discussion -- maybe not every day, but pretty effective, especially with a group of future teachers to give us a chance to practice facilitating substantive conversations with "easy" students. Would love it if this got propagated across other classes in the SMAC program. Also thumbs up on the "standing when I want to take over the discussion" idea -- go Bill! Visible without being disruptive. I also think this would be useful in the secondary school classroom as it pushes kids to develop presence and facilitation skills that will come in handy in all aspects of their lives.

I love the idea of using this year to experiment how to make assessment a) authentic (which for these purposes I'll define as measuring your learning, not your test taking skills), b) scalable (so adding 50% to the students in a classroom doesn't immediately kill the teacher) and, c) standardize-able (so they can be compared across classrooms, schools, districts, states, and nations).

I'm afraid it might be a "pick two" situation, e.g. "time, money, quality" but I'm curious to see whether there are things about newer technologies that can break down some of the structural issues. I love, for instance, the idea of a teacher blog or email list that makes upcoming assignments and their rubrics transparent to parents (and also maybe a regular update on grade status) so they can intervene with their children early in the process rather than waiting until parent-teacher conferences to be shocked at how things are going.

Media21 webinar: So... technology sometimes hurts (oh, the feedback!). But it was great to get a chance to talk to Buffy and Susan directly about their real experience. I think it's fascinating that the students don't equate text on screens / videos with "reading literature", and it's probably a challenge with extended this kind of project, because if there are students who resist it, how much more will the parents? If you respond to, "when are we going to read the Illiad" with "whenever you want -- how about we twitter or blog discuss it over the summer?" would that work?

Where to start: Blogs -- the gateway drug. :)

I think it's interesting that we're back to whether richer input engages or becomes white noise. I'm having a hard time tracking discussion and reacting to it electronically in real time. Do "laptops (only) magnify what's already there?" -- they also present a lot more stimuli and options for distractions that aren't a factor when your laptop is closed.

Cloud computing -- Evernote, gmail -- is amazingly convenient, but always makes me feel squishy about the level of trust required (high). I have to believe that Google and Evernote and everyone else I trust with my data is going to treat that stuff with the privacy and security levels I would wish. In the corporate world, they deal with this by having secured, gated clouds (exchange, intranets), but that doesn't seem to be as relevant in an more money-constrained education environment. (Hey, we're back to time-money-quality again!) What's our guarantee that they the free sites are trustworthy? They need to maintain their reputation... but how much can they transgress before they loose it? (Will definitely look into -- looks useful for at least addressing some of the security concerns.)