Thursday, July 18, 2013

Those Seven Myths of Education

Christodoulou's seven myths:
1 – Facts prevent understanding, 2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive, 3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything, 4 – You can always just look it up, 5 – We should teach transferable skills, 6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn, 7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

She's pretty much nailed it. Here's my take on it.

1 – Facts prevent understanding

Actually, there can be no understanding without facts.

If I don't know that 8*7=56, I can't do much arithmetic without a calculator - and that means I have no understanding. I can't realize when I've punched the wrong value in the calculator or hit the wrong key.

If I don't understand distributive property, I can't do much algebra, and I can't multiply 102 * 57 in my head. Knowing those things means that I can take them a few steps beyond  the simplistic and apply them to much more complex things.

If I lack facts, then I will fall prey to misinformation. I will believe because it looks okay and says some things definitively. Facts that I know are my only shield against lies I'm told.

We'll work together. Pull !
2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive, or "Collaboration is the only way because the students will discover their own knowledge and it will be more powerful for them; they'll be engaged and learn more." 

I recall a very smart kid named Chris who was always first ... with the wrong answers. He would catch on quickly, but he had a way of speaking that other students had learned to trust and so now, they would all have the wrong idea. Once that got in their heads, it was quite difficult to change it.

It's the same thing that happens when Jenny McCarthy opens her mouth about vaccines. Or when a person holds a politically extreme position (left or right, no matter). The idea is fixed. As the teacher, you need to make sure that the right information gets out first.  You need to give them the mental shield against misinformation.

For me, it boils down to this question, "Who should be teaching the kids? Should it be Chris, who is learning this for the first time or me, the teacher, who knows what's going on?"

New teachers take note: The school is paying you $40k+ for a reason ... you have several more years of coursework and understanding.

What are you waiting for?  You don't have to talk for forty minutes straight but you are the recognized keeper of knowledge here; you have studied, written, been tested, researched and spent time at this. Some of what you have learned needs to be transferred.

3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything

No, it doesn't. You will be dealing with fundamentally the same kinds of minds that you went to school with. They have the same fears and needs, the same hopes and desires, the same weaknesses and strengths.

Sure, there are more toys in their pockets, but you're probably just as addicted to them. If it messes with your mind or distracts you endlessly, it will have the same effects on the students.

The tools are different now, but the learning is the same, the goals are the same, and the pitfalls are the same.  The kids are hormonal and angsty just like you were, pressured and anxious and worried about college or girls or boys ... or a girl or a boy. When they get out, they'll still need math, science, English, history, Arts, languages.

Just like you did.

4 – You can always just look it up.

You can only look something up if you know that you don't know, and you can't check your source if you know nothing about the topic.

What's wrong with the following story I just made up?
Old man Smith was a curmudgeonly sort but happy, outgoing and pleasant. On this particular day, he had left his warm bed at 5:30 in the morning to mount his harvester and head out to the fields. He had hoped to get all of his haying done by noon but the baler was giving him trouble and the fifth-wheel on the hay wagon went flat. 
Nothing, grammatically. In RealLife, though, you can't bale wet hay or it burns down the barn, you don't use a harvester for haying, there isn't a fifth-wheel on a hay wagon and it isn't a tire so it won't go flat, and "curmudgeonly" is the wrong word in that context. How much did you look up? And what did you look up? And where?

Or did you do just as every student does ... read it and move on, assuming that everything was fine?

If you don't know something, you can't be expected to look up and fix what you don't know is wrong. If you don't know that sin(4°) is positive but sin(4) is negative, how would you know if you got it wrong? What should you look up? Type sin(4) into Google or wolfram and you get
Must be the right answer - the internet said so.

5 – We should teach transferable skills

The skills that I learned in school more than 40 years ago were pretty basic and I transferred them to the new world pretty easily. There's a reason that everyone still requires math, science, English, history, Arts, languages.

Teach skills. Math skills, writing skills, whatever your discipline requires. They'll transfer just fine.

6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn

If you have no idea what you are doing, how are you supposed to start? How do you get over that hurdle caused by a lack of knowledge?

Start with a transfer from the sage to the students. Then build them up from total noobs to something just a bit better. Now you can have them work on a project but remember the one salient fact ...

Work is different than learning.

Don't expect them to teach themselves and then accomplish some big project. They need you to do your part first.

Not sure that any of this year's graduates
fit this particular mold.
7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

No. Teaching lies is indoctrination. Deliberately teaching misinformation is indoctrination. Forcing your students to spout your political views or parrot your religious teachings is indoctrination.

Critical thinking looks similar to and is often confused with an attack on indoctrination. If they challenge you, then you're doing it right.

Don't confuse acculturation with indoctrination. The kids also need to know how the world works and what is expected of them. It's not evil to explain what kinds of behavior with result in being fired.

Public schools are rarely guilty of the brain-washing they're accused of. Private schools do it constantly but since it matches the expectations of the parents, it's apparently okay.

I enjoyed our little chat. thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

It Takes More Than Love to Homeschool

Joanne Jacobs quotes Paula Bolyard in How Badly Can we Mess up Kindergarten:
“Parents, who love and understand their children better than anyone else in the world, are well-qualified to educate their children at home and should seriously consider taking on the challenge,” concludes Bolyard.

Well, actually, that's a very simplistic statement lacking in any knowledge of the realities of education, akin to saying that owning a box of tools is enough to fix the brakes on your car or that attending high school school in the 1970s is sufficient to call yourself an education expert.

Homeschooling is much more than just love and understanding. Anyone who goes into it feeling they "can't possibly mess up Kindergarten" and "screw it, that wasn't so bad, we'll just keep on going" is a fool.

Despite their stupidity, I would never argue that they be forced to give it up. They have just as much right to screw up their children's lives as anyone. Religion is the usual reason for homeschooling and seems to be a major reason here. Religious parents often wish to raise their children with more spiritual classes and teachings, which is fine. Some wish to avoid contact with children who don't share their beliefs, which is silly, but it's still the parents' choice.
But then I have a picture in my mind of my precious boys snuggled up with me on the couch as I’m reading Johnny Tremain to them. . . . The American Revolution is jumping off the pages and coming to life for them as Johnny helps Paul Revere warn that the British are coming! We have already read a couple chapters from the Bible that day, a chapter from a missionary biography, and have worked on memorizing Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If.”
I just hope that everyone understands that Johnny Tremain is fiction, not history, and that she can find someone to tutor math and science.

UPDATE (after PeggyU's comment):
"I struggled with discipline and consistency in my personal life; and of course, that spilled into our homeschooling world."
This is the first sign that this education is going to be less than ideal. Homeschooling isn't just a matter of eliminating the schedule and bustle of public school; it needs it's own structure. The children will take their cues from the parent, as they always do, but there won't be a counterweight.
"I struggled with frequent migraine headaches, so we planned a 4-day school schedule in order to allow an extra day for my health issues."
The number of days isn't the issue here, but the reasons are. This woman isn't prepared for this task and, subconsciously at least, seems to know it.
"We worked through learning disabilities and speech therapy and the year we all now laugh about and refer to as 'Algebra with Anger.'"
As a high school math teacher, I cringed at this line. The biggest problem I have is the residue of math fear left by previous teachers. It takes weeks, sometimes months, for me to break through that and get the reluctant to try, to realize that they DO know some math and that they CAN learn it.
"It wasn’t pretty and we’re not proud of it, but I remind myself that lots of kids in public schools went through much worse things in 9th grade than a grumpy dad with a whiteboard who worked an 8-hour day and, after an hour commute, tried to teach algebra to an uncooperative student. (I don’t recommend it.)"
Yeah, and some kids had lost their fathers in Afghanistan while some are orphans, and others got beat up on the school bus. This is rationalization, self-delusion and denial, and total bs. Instead of admitting they had reached a limit, they forged on regardless.
... we had both completed first grade in school, so we surely possessed at least a rudimentary grasp of the course work, right?
... we used the curriculum because we didn’t know any better ...
... other parts of the curriculum were too structured for our more laid-back family style ...
... you can find a curriculum that fits your individual family and your kids’ learning styles ...
There are too many misguided educational tropes here leading to one more kid, screwed over by his parents.
Homeschooling can be a wonderful, rewarding experience for a family and, I believe, the best educational choice for many — if not most — families. 
Except if you want the kids to get a decent education. Unqualified and unknowledgeable parents do not make good teachers. A rare few percent of homeschool kids can succeed on their own, but they're the exceptions to the rule.
Parents, who love and understand their children better than anyone else in the world, are well-qualified to educate their children at home and should seriously consider taking on the challenge.

Oh, well. As I've often said, the public school system is provided by the community for any of its residents who choose to make use of it. It's too bad this family chose the way they did but I guess they're satisfied.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Why I'm going slow with tech in the classroom.

I'm having trouble with tech in the classroom. It's similar to the complaint expressed a few days ago on DogHouse Diaries about the vast array of digital storage options and the call for simplification. Expand the graphic to see what I mean.

I've found that I have an incredibly diverse set of tools that I can use daily, that the "reformocrats" would like me to be "expert" at using.
  • For writing and other communications: blogs and forums, Twitter, Facebook, Edmodo, Google+, Reader, TypeWithMe, and other web stuff,  Word, OpenOffice.
  • An ability to make websites: Google Sites is a minimum, but really, I'm supposed to be able to build one from scratch using wordpad or notepad. 
  • I've had to become proficient at administering Moodle because the school IT's refuses to set one up. Another teacher and I paid for the site from our dept budgets. We set it up, maintain, enroll students, create classes, train teachers in creating and using.
  • I need a Google account so I can make good use of maps, images, drive, gmail and all of the sharing capabilities. Google Drive and all of its quirks and annoyances needs to balance with the harddrive and network folder at school and the computer at home, not to mention the USB stick that I carry. Version control, anyone?
  • For worksheets and practice: MS Word 2000 and 2007 (different formats). Text files, HTML pages, Latex.
  • For quizzes: MS Word 2000 and 2007 (different formats), Moodle quizzes which need either Latex or some equation editor or equations as images, Google docs which doesn't import equations real well from Word, Socrative, the book's test generator.
  • For presentations: Powerpoint, Google Docs, Prezi, SlideRocket.
  • Other media: Photoshop, Word Drawing tools, TurboCAD, Audacity, Five different movie editing tools as my OS changed, VideoLan and WMedia and Apple QuickTime.
  • Tools such as Excel and other spreadsheets, databases ranging from Access to MySQL, Fathom and other specialized statistics software, not to mention familiarity with WolframAlpha and the formatting language behind it and Mathematica or Maple. Don't forget MatLab and the TI-83/4 and Inspire graphing calculators.
  • While we're at it, I should be able to code: Javascript, .php, MySQL, .html, etc. All of the other languages I've learned are obsolete: Basic, Fortran, .asp, TruBasic. 
  • The grading software. It was FinalGradePro, then GradeQuick, then Gradequick with Edline, and now it will be Powerschool.
  • The SmartBoard.
  • I need to be able to train the faculty at my school in most of these technologies because IT doesn't do this. Fortunately, I have several fellow teachers who are as good as I am - we work with each other and then spread out to train. 
  • Chromebooks will be handed out to students at some point and we'd better make use of them or the Powers That Be will be pissed at the expense. Did I mention that the only group doing training is that same core group of faculty?
  • Did I mention that many of these are programs that my school doesn't install on the faculty computer? I can make CAD drawings at home but have to convert them to show at school, or print at school.  Some of these have been eliminated (Google Reader, delicious, etc.) and others have not had their license renewed (OpenOffice replacing Office for fiscal reasons) or made major format changes.
  • Books: I have hardcopy, Kindle format, text files, Google Books, pdf.
  • Jeez ... forgot about flipped classes, video, audio, YouTube and TeacherTube and computer support.

  • Oh yeah, I also teach math. I'll have five preps next year, including an online Geometry course that I've never seen before - something the state cooperative bought from Florida Online. 
And that is just scratching at the surface. I'm sure that everyone of you reading this said to yourself at least once, "He forgot about ____. That is so useful."
Remind me again what I'm being paid to do?

I know most of this tech already, but the students don't (with the exception of Facebook and their smartphones) and most of the other teachers are pretty new at everything, too.

My co-teacher falls into this trap a lot: he's real excited about every tool. "You can all use powerpoint but it's not the best. Google presentation isn't very good either. You should use SlideRocket." Other teachers are using Powerpoint with them because the kids all learned that in 7th grade and still others are excited about Prezi because it "engages the students more." That's four different presentation methods - so each student has to learn four different environments ... and that's just for making a presentation. And it assumes that the tool you learn this year will still be around next year and that the para-educators know all four and can help the kids with each one (not for $11/hour).

There are so many options, the whole thing grinds to a halt.

There are so many tools that won't play nicely together.

With "new" comes "Training" and mistakes. Unfortunately, mistakes in education tend to involve confidential data and are usually a big problem. There is so much data being put into Powerschool that doesn't belong in a single-access system. The people setting things up are dumping everything into it with little concern for who "needs" to see which piece of information. All it will take is for a single teacher to be careless with a single password and a whole host of information will be out there in the student body. 

Most importantly, if you want people to learn and explore and experiment, you have to be willing for things to not go well and all we've heard about is how bad our schools are and how much reform is needed. Most of the push for reform involves more and more diverse technology tools that no one can use well in the first place. "If only you all used ____, our scores would go up."

I used to hate Microsoft for its dominance and attitude until I realized that the standardization it fostered made education manageable. You could teach kids how to use a tool quickly and then get on with using the tool to learn.

So, before we ask that teachers be good at everything ... is there a chance that we could standardize this list a bit? Put together a list of the must-haves and hold off on the rest?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The trouble with False positives.

From Slahdot:
"In many ways finding the small amount of terrorists within the United States is like screening a population of people for a rare disease. A physician explains why collecting excessive data is actually dangerous. Each time a test is run, the number of people incorrectly identified quickly dwarfs the correct matches. Just like in medicine, being incorrectly labelled has serious consequences."

Okay, Students. This is one place you will have to use this in real life.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Question about questions, SBAC edition. Graphs.

So, the SBAC is releasing questions so that we teachers can't complain that they've done all this work behind our backs. At least, they hope we don't.

But I digress.

I got a list of some released questions and started looking. My general rule is to make sure that the first thing on any handout is correct. I also have to assume that SBAC has access to a graphing calculator such as Graph 4.4 ... so why do they come out with the following?

The question they ask the students: "The graph of y = x² is shown on the grid. Drag the graph to show y = (x - 4)² + 2"

The question I have for them is, "Why didn't you graph it properly? It was probably more difficult to get it wrong than it would be to get it right. Did they use Microsoft Word? Just seems weird to me, like a circular arc and then two lines. I know it's picky, but sheesh.

I will point out that this is a great example of the over-reliance on gee-whizardry by SBAC ... everything has to be drag and drop, click and move, glitenbullshit. This could be done so many other ways, just as relevant and equally valid.

I'm curious mostly about the granularity of the placement. What is the tolerance? Can a student with a Chromebook and touchpad do this in a timely fashion?  Here's the "answer" ... note that it doesn't actually have a vertex at (4,2).

I think we'd better get a few extra mice for testing day.

Here's another. Drag the factors to make the equation ... I guess you drag (x-2) out twice. God, what a pain in the ass without a mouse. Graph looks wrong again. It's definitely a Bezier curve from MS Word.

Here's the real one for those who care:

Again, why not do it right?

Workfare is Detention for Adults.

And just as effective at getting the building cleaned.

This little meme has been going around and it's obvious to me that no one is really thinking ... really using those critical thinking skills that they always bitch at teachers for not teaching.

Should able-bodied do work for their money?

First indication this is silly: the implication is that people should only be paid for their work. Does that mean that, in order to get benefits, they now have to be given a government job, with all the benefits, rights and responsibilities ... which then means they aren't technically unemployed anymore ... which means that the right-wing demagogues who posted this are agitating for more people on the government payroll?

Are we as stupid as that?


I'm sure that some people who are out of work could do those jobs quite well and they should be able to apply for a government job if they want, but to fire the current workers in order to give work to the unemployed seems circular to me.

That's until you get to those who can't do the job ... then this idea is frankly nuts.

Have you ever supervised detention at school? When you have untrained or unwilling workers (even moderately unwilling), you get sloppy work and no attention to detail. You're worse off than when you began because now you need someone competent to go back and redo the job properly.

Of course, you also need more supervisors to check whether they've worked "hard enough" or done the job "well enough", meaning that you now are paying your current workers to be management and your new workers, too. And you still haven't really gotten the job done well.

If you decide to fire all of your current public works employees and replace them with unemployed, you haven't really accomplished anything except adding to your current problems.

The constant turnover of staff would be a nightmare and the logistical headaches of this idea make it unworkable. No business owner in his right mind would ever accept this idea.

But, hey, all anti-welfare folks, keep pretending you have a clue.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Please read a "Letter to the Idiot Nation"

From StoneKettle Station: A Letter to the Idiot Nation, in which he responds to the "Jeff Foxworthy" forwarded email/facebook bs.

You know the one: "If the government wants to prevent stable, law-abiding citizens from owning gun magazines that hold more than ten rounds, but gives twenty F-16 fighter jets to the crazy new leaders in Egypt - you might live in a nation that was founded by geniuses but is run by idiots.
If, in the nation's largest city, you can buy two 16-ounce sodas, but not one 24-ounce soda, because 24-ounces of a sugary drink might make you fat - you might live in a nation that was founded by geniuses but is run by idiots."
Enough, Shipmates, enough.
Enough of this crap.
What the hell happened to you guys? When did you start buying into this garbage?
"Jeff’s got something to say?"
What the hell, fellas? Jeff Foxworthy? The has-been “you might be a redneck…” comedian whose popularity waxed in the mid 1990’s? That Jeff Foxworthy?

It’s bad enough that the average idiot would believe this nonsense, but you two men are far from stupid and you were trained intelligence officers.  In uniform, you’d have never stood for this kind of sloppy bullshit from your watch team. What happened to your critical analysis skills, did you take them off with your uniform?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Surviving The Harry Potter Classroom

It's summer, the time when teachers start to second-guess themselves and their teaching. They read articles and research teaching methods. Let's try CoolMath's Cooperative Learning Article which starts with a StrawMan argument and slides downhill from there. I'm not exaggerating. Here's paragraph 2:
"In the old and traditional classroom, the teacher would say, “I will dictate, and you will listen.  I will repeat, and you will recite. I will test, and you will either pass or fail.  This is how it has always been done.”
Really? Haven't seen many traditional classrooms, have you? Ever been in a New England Private School? Ever seen a public school? Apparently this author has watched Snape.
"I've been teaching math for about 14 years (writing this in summer 2005) at the community college level. But, these methods will all work with middle and high school kids too."
Sure, they'll work just as well because you said so? Because we all know that 19 and 20-year-old college kids in a community college remedial class behave and respond exactly as 12-14 year-olds in honors algebra I?

What are these magical methods? Collaborative Learning, because, according to research, "It is Bandura’s theory that interactive, collaborative projects help build self-efficacy and introduce new patterns of behavior.(Klinger, 1999)"

Well, I feel all better now.

Any hooo, let's introduce "Survivor Algebra." Put your class into Tribes! Have them collaborate! Compete!

Give them mathy names (these are copyrighted, no less): Newtongon, Quotiedor, Numa, Pascalos, Calcula, Fractoanan, Subtracto, Pentanos, Arithmatog, Decimos, Algekor, Quadraticus, and Additron.

They have to work together! Their teammates help them! Everyone is motivated!

Or not.
Students are put into tribes/districts that will last the school year. Everything they do matters to the tribe. Everything that normally happens in the classroom: group work, discussion, problem solving, quizzes, tests, neatness, homework, good questions, good behavior, good attendance, etc is now a chance to win game pieces.
1) We take kids and arbitrarily divide them into groups that will last for the entire course, whether they like it or not. Whether they want to or not.
  • Suppose my "teammates" can't learn as quickly as I. I therefore have to "help" them, but I don't want to be the teacher. That is not my role and I shouldn't be forced to do it. I'm in the middle of learning this and I don't quite know it well enough for me to be doing the teacher's job.
  •  Suppose my "teammates" aren't motivated and spend a lot of time talking about other things instead of simply getting to work? A 12-yo is not going to be able to influence an unmotivated 14-yo and will not have the "leadership" skills to overcome it.
  • Suppose you mix girls and boys together ... the belief is that everyone's the same, right? Will you also require the boys to shut up occasionally or will you let the girls all take a subordinate role if that's what develops? Are you ready to separate by gender? 
  • How about racial quotas - every team has to have 1 black kid, 3 white kids, and 1 Asian ... so the Asian kid can balance the black kid? Are you sure you want to open this nasty can of worms?
  • Which group gets the special ed kids and who does their work? Kids can tolerate having a para help out but not if it affects a grade or helps another group get more points.
2) Group grades:
  • A teacher basing a student's grade in any way on the work ethic and understanding (or lack thereof) of any other student is immoral and wrong. Except for Hogwarts.
  • A student's transcript should be based solely on what that student knows or can do or has accomplished.
  • Group work is useful and valuable when you are doing work but most of the time, students are not doing "work" ... they are learning.This is an important distinction.

3) Group dynamics will also get into the mix. Watch Survivor and follow the changes team members undergo while being with their teams. Check out Big Brother and see the same thing.

There's a reason why the Hogwarts students are divided into houses. For those who didn't realize, Slytherin values ambition, cunning and resourcefulness, a little cold and calculating, maybe a touch immoral; Gryffindor values bravery, daring, nerve, and chivalry; Hufflepuff values hard work, patience, loyalty, and fair play rather than a particular aptitude in its members; and Ravenclaw values intelligence, knowledge, and wit. Rowling wanted everyone to know who the bad guys were.

If you force students into a group, the students will take on the qualities of that group, usually the qualities of the most outgoing or loudest member. Success by the group becomes the success of the individual. Likewise failure. Rivalries will begin to dominate. Differences will be exaggerated: Ohio fans hate Michigan fans for no apparent reason ... the same thing will happen here.

Any special treatment given to one group will antagonize the rest, even if the reward was "earned". Punish one member for being sloppy and you'll set them against each other. Any reward that was earned unfairly ("They have Jason. He knows everything.") will ensure that everyone hates the smart kids ...
... and the banner at the front of the room will remind them every day 
exactly who those smart kids are.

Remember the arm-band experiment? Yeah.

4) Everything they do will be known to their classmates, good or bad. Every grade, every assignment, every assessment. Besides being a breach of privacy, it will lay pressure on those who handle it least well and it will generate the kind of bullying and peer pressure that we should never allow. A weak student is an anchor every single day to other students that he otherwise enjoys working with - he'll know and they'll know it.

5) Everything is scored. From neatness to "good questions", discussion to behavior, everything is measured, whether the child has control over it or not.
  • Homework is practice and should not be graded. 
  • If you want the good students to be asking all the questions, score the behavior. They'll be happy to scrounge points from you this way. 
  • "Problem-solving"? You won't see the entire group solving anything - the smart kids will make sure they're first and right.

Every point will count and they'll make sure that you give them every one. So will their parents. God help you if you put the future valedictorian with anyone who will lower his score.

You've changed the emphasis from learning to scoring points. Points indicate what you value. Do you value understanding math or writing neatly, knowledge or copied homework, math ability or teamwork, promptness and a pencil or being able to calmly consider a new problem in a thoughtful way?

Why should math class be a horserace anyway? Must we have a winner and a bunch of losers?

So here's the bottom line.
  1. Have the occasional competition, but don't make it the point of the class.
  2. Don't make any student responsible for another.
  3. Don't tie grades to group work.
  4. Don't score anything that's not important. 
  5. Don't divide the group against itself.