Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why do Teachers Get the Summer Off?

Funny you should ask. We don't actually get the summer off ... the students do. Our time off is the logical consequence.

The reasons why are more interesting than the "It's a farmer thing" line of reasoning.
If Education Secretary Arne Duncan has his way, kids would be spending a lot more time at school — and a three-month summer would be a thing of the past. He continued by explaining that the American school calendar is antiquated and must be modified so that American students can compete at the highest levels internationally. “Most people realize that our current day is based on the agrarian economy, and we don’t have too many kids working out in the fields nowadays,” Duncan said. 

Most people realize, huh? Then most people would be wrong. And so is Arne.

The summer months are hot. The temperatures throughout the Northeast rise regularly into the 80s and 90s, the humidity is choking, and closed-in spaces like classrooms are no fun when you've got 25 kids sweating and fidgeting. It's bad enough in late May and mid-June.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when a lot of school policies were first considered, it was easier to heat buildings in the winter than to cool them in the summer because, you know, duh, there wasn't any air conditioning. Factories closed. Schools closed. Offices closed. Congress closed. Everything closed. People with the wherewithal escaped the cities and went to the Adirondacks or Vermont or the Catskills, with all their servants and entourage.  People who didn't have money went to Coney Island. That's why everyone traditionally gets two weeks in August ... because it's the worst damn time to be in NY and Boston and Washington D.C. and since that was where the decision-makers were, that was the decision. Time off for major holidays and the occasional week or two here and there - Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter - and the rest is school ... and everyone escapes in summer.

Sorry to all you "It's all based on the agrarian calender" believers - it's obvious you were never on a farm.

Think about it ... if the whole thing was done for farmers benefit, wouldn't it make more sense to have the time off when the real heavy work was done on a farm? Like planting and harvest?

You don't see vacations in October, do you? You know, when the harvest occurs for most of the major crops in the northeast. Halloween and all the corn stalks and pumpkins -- ringing a bell?  Thanksgiving is in November - the only time you get is for the feast, not the work that leads up to it.

The summer months are busy (the definition of farmer is 'a busy man') but nowhere near as busy as other times of the year. About the only farm work done around here in the summer is haying, watching the corn grow and fixing stuff. 

I'm going to go out on a limb a bit here ...

... Kids need a break from school; we have to let them do things OTHER than school. You know that old saying, "Most of what I know, I learned outside of school"? That's a big part of what summer is about. Parents, by and large want their kids to have summer break, want their kids to be able to get a part-time job and learn to be responsible adults, be able to hike the Appalachian Trail, laze about or go swimming, etc.

And why should kids be in school for every week of the year? Shouldn't we let the parents raise them for a while?

There are some schools that have installed a full air-conditioning system and choose to go year-round ... but they still tend to stick to the same 180 days. The only difference is that they have more one-month vacations or they do a four-on, one week-off schedule.

If my school system ever decides to change to that, I'll adapt but I have confidence the students and their parents won't let that happen.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Working in Isolation vs Collaboration

from Dangerously Irrelevant:
Joe Bower said:
I would never ask students to complete anything that is worth doing in complete isolation from their peers, parents, books, or the Internet. I’ve worked hard to encourage my students to see collaboration as a critical characteristic of learning.
I would never lock my students in a closet, forcing them to do meaningless work for years and letting them eat only a small bowl of thin porridge each day. That's the way that reductive capitalism works: a sweatshop producing clothing for Walmart, not the education that we desire in this country. 

Joe is, unfortunately, making the same mistake that almost all "Collaboration Uber Alles" proponents make. There are three stages to learning in my view; true collaboration is appropriate and achievable in only one of them.

First, a definition: Collaboration is working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals. Good enough to begin with.

The First Stage
First Stage Learning.
  • The first stage of education is learning the basics, learning the foundation work upon which the understanding can be built. If we are examining A-SSE.2, multiplication of polynomials is required before we can possibly recognize and utilize structure in expressions. You need to have done this first part before being able to recognize that x² - y² is equivalent to (x+y)(x-y). 
  • This is strictly solo work in that the student must be doing the learning. The teacher and classmates can explain, describe, tutor, re-explain ... but acquiring this preliminary knowledge is the job of the individual. No one else can master it for him, they can only master it for themselves. 
  • Collaboration does not exist at this stage, only parallel learning. Peer coaching is not collaboration, but a "multiple-teacher" scenario. This is where formative assessment is appropriate because we absolutely do NOT want any misunderstandings to be introduced or practiced or internalized — errors must be fixed here before they are ingrained.
  • The Internet, their peers, parents, books, are useful in that they are teachers with varying degrees of understanding ranging from competent to utterly and absolutely wrong. The "wrong" can be misguided, such as the videos put up by well-meaning folks who say that the order of operations is "multiply first, then divide", thinking 30 ÷ 2 * 3 equals 5 instead of 45. The "wrong" can also be peers playing a joke, such as the "friend" who says that 26 ÷ 65 equals 2/5 because you can cancel the sixes. Of course, the "wrong" can be malicious or deluded, such as the folks who claim that the Earth is 6000 years old.

Andrew Old:
"If you want to learn how to cooperate effectively with others, then the last place you’d start is in a group of teenagers being made to do school work. This is like saying the best way to learn how to make pork sausages is by being imprisoned in a pig farm with a half-dozen rabbis. Putting together people who are neither experienced at doing something, or particularly inclined to want to do it, is not how you learn to do that something."
The Second Stage 
  • The second stage is the time when we take that basic knowledge and develop it, building the deeper understandings that are our goal. Some collaboration happens at this stage, but mostly the individual is exploring, researching, expanding the understandings that are the point of this whole thing.
  • Again, the peer-to-peer work that is happening here is less "learning" and more taking turns questioning, extending the idea (does x4 - y4 behave in a similar fashion?) Where else can we go with this? 
  • The Internet, peers, parents, etc., are still not collaboration, but they do contribute to the student's learning. In fact, this is the ideal time for students to see other points of view, watch different explanations and determine the correlations and reconcile the differences. I encourage watching Khan at this point with the question, "What do you think of his explanation?"
At the end of Stage Two is the usual spot for summative assessment, the dreaded chapter test. Why "dreaded"? Because the students have JUST internalized it but rarely are comfortable with it yet. Done properly, though, the chapter test is often the fusion of all of the disparate details, the time when the students have to put everything together. I often hear students say that "Now I understand."

It's also why I allow retakes, because I feel that understanding on a deadline is less important than being able to say at the end of the course "You know Algebra 2".  I suppose this is the essence of Proficiency-Based Learning, but I have never liked re-labeling what we do in order to pretend that we are reforming.
The Third Stage
Re-purposed wrecking ball.
  • The third stage of learning is the time when students get comfortable with their understandings, where they extend an idea, test it, and revise it themselves, where they produce a product, something new — to themselves at least, if not to the teacher or the world, but there are certainly cases in which the work was completely new, an invention or discovery.
  • This is the only place where collaboration is actually realistic. Since I define "collaboration" as "multiple students working on the same project, contributing to each phase of the work and trusting each other to complete their respective parts", I cannot see collaboration as the time when you are learning the material, but as the time when you take that learning and produce something.
We must discuss Alfie Kohn:
“I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do” is really just code for “I want to see what you can do artificially deprived of the skills and help of the people around you. Rather than seeing how much more you can accomplish in a well-functioning team that’s more authentic like real life.”
If we are discussing education, then I absolutely DO want to know what you can do, what you have learned and internalized. How else am I to re-teach, help, differentiate?

Joe Bower, again:
"In the real world, there simply aren’t that many times you are expected to solve a problem or perform a task in complete isolation – and even if you were, it would be awfully archaic to refuse you the opportunity to reach out for the help you needed to get the task done.
In the RealWorld that I've been a part of, there is not a single company that didn't expect a baseline level of knowledge and understanding. They have no interest in an employee who can't work alone, or who can't do his part of a collaborative task. They don't want someone who needs to consult other resources constantly, in order to do the simplest of tasks. They want to know how good a resource you will be when someone has to ask you for help.

Bottom line:
  • Collaboration is students each working from knowledge and understanding to produce something together, sharing the work or parceling out pieces for each to work on simultaneously.
  • Collaboration is not a pathway to learning and often is detrimental to the learning process since many students leave the thinking and learning to the quickest in the group ... "He answered so I don't have to think about the question." or "I'll just repeat what she said."
  • Collaboration before all of the partners are proficient is counter-productive. If all participants aren't at the proficient point, there will be one who winds up doing most of the work in frustration, worried that her grades will slip because the quality of the product is below her standards.
  • Collaboration is not a substitute for teaching.
Thanks for reading. I've got to get back to work.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Things we need you to stop saying 4

I'm scheduled for a Tech conference.  This is one of the offerings:


I find this amazing, sad, depressing, and it pisses me off.

I find it amazing that any teacher doesn't know more about technology than students; decent and cheap personal computers that can play video and music and run Office software and play games, have been around for 20 something years now.  More basic machines like the TRS-80 and the PDP8 (with punch tape reader!) since the seventies.  The Internet has been a thing since '95 and smartphones since 2007.

What teacher doesn't know tech at this point? Are there really people that backwards and stupid who don't know Office, and video games and .... a concept of programming whether it's macros in word, Windows script, basic, html, php, javascript, excel .... Anything? Something? Do I know any of these people?

Yes, yes I do. And they're teachers.  That's the sad part. Sad because it seems like MOST of the teachers I deal with are technidiots. (Like that? I just made the word up.)

It's 2015 and this conference is charging $200 a day and this is the title of one hour's workshop and the title isn't considered odd or demeaning or out-of-place. That's depressing but not surprising.

Far too many teachers are STILL tech illiterate, even by comparison with their students.

Yes, I said it. The students are not "digital natives" endowed with magical tech-fu. They are mostly clueless about useful tech of all kinds. They're great at plugging in the computer and playing a video game, or installing Candy crush on their phones and mindlessly playing for hours, but that's not tech literate.  Sure, there are some who know more than I do, but not very many, and I'm not setting a particularly high bar.

So what pisses me off?

Holy shit!  I've been told that I can't teach unless I have certifications and continuing education in all forms of my field. I'm supposed to have lesson plans ready and write curriculum and proficiency based standards and differentiate my teaching.

Programming, apparently, doesn't require any of that.

Programming doesn't need expertise.

Programming is something the smart kid can teach for you.

Students helped with instruction and debugging. They addressed multiple languages and "no one knows the entire curriculum" and "all learn basics together".

What is this, an after school program at the Boys and Girls Club?

Teachers: Stop being idiots. Go learn how to program. Do your budget on Excel. Figure out how to center your words both vertically and horizontally in a Word document.

PD Leaders: Stop encouraging the technidiots.  It's not cute. It's not helpful, and we really need you to stop saying it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Things We Need you to Stop Saying, part 3

"We're trying to protect the children."

Lewis said that, so far, the district hasn't requested any passwords from students, but said that schools are in "the business of protecting kids."
"If there's a disruption to school, if there are threats or discrimination of any type that fall under bullying and harassment policies we have, we have to follow through and investigate," she said.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Things we Need You To Stop Saying, part two

"If we taught reading the way we have traditionally taught math, we would need to teach kids to read each individual book separately."

"A school board member said to me a while back:
Scott, I hear what you’re saying about active, hands-on, project-based learning. But I got to tell you, when I’m driving over a bridge, I want to have confidence that the people who designed and built it knew what they were doing. So if that takes a lot of practice on worksheets until students know their math and science, so be it.
I responded:
I agree that I don’t want the bridge collapsing under me either! If we want graduates who know how to build solid, long-lasting bridges, we absolutely can have them do a bunch of practice problems on worksheets until we think they know the math and science and we’ll hope that they will remember it later.
… (pause) …
Or we could have them build bridges.
… (pause) …
Who do you think will be better bridge builders?
How do we help our communities understand that authentic learning is possible?
from Scott MacLeod,

I have to ask a couple of questions.
  1. Are all of my students going to be building bridges? 
  2. Do the specific techniques of building bridges really translate to all of the "not yet invented" jobs of the 21st Century? 
  3. Isn't raw, pure math authentic, too?
The first two are silly questions, of course, because the setup and the response are in the form of a parable, never meant to be taken specifically ... usually. The third is something that far too many people refuse to acknowledge as true simply because they have little understanding of the topic.

Can I ever get specific in high school math?

Should my job be to provide the students with as broad a foundation as possible, with as few specifics as possible, or should I bring my engineering knowledge to the classroom and demand that everyone understand mathematics from the perspective of a mechanical engineer trained before the wide-spread and use of computers in classrooms, before the internet, before smartphones and smartboards, ... and if you ask some of my students, Before the Flood, too?

I am often reminded of this question when people tell me to bring the "RealWorld questions" into the classroom and the students, with varying degrees of certitude, tell me that "I'm never going to need to know that."