Friday, July 31, 2009

Civil Discourse and a Teachable Moment

While I try to make it a habit not to let this blog become a discussion on politics, I was struck with a thought this morning looking at my daily feed that I cannot get out of my head.

Two articles over the national news were brought to my attention. The first was from Politico's Alex Isenstadt, entitled "Town Halls gone wild". Isenstadt highlights the dramatic increase of rhetoric at what used to be a tranquil medium for conversation. Despite (or maybe because of) a solid victory at the polls the past two elections, House Democrats are facing more and more yelling, kicking, and screaming at the meetings, to the point where some are cutting them off. As those opposed find themselves in a smaller minority, they make up for it with increased intensity and non-civility.

Republicans have not been immune either. The most famous example is the now notorious "birther" confrontation Mike Castle (R-De) faced:

As you can see in the video, the trademark of this discourse is yelling, interrupting, verbalized anger, and a strong appeal to pathos only (some have said Castle was "hijacked by the Pledge of Allegiance"). Absent is any listening and consideration for another's point of view. Perspective is never mentioned... everything is an issue of right or wrong. This type of behavior is amplified by the 24-hour intensity on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, which feature many of the trademarks (check out an episode of the O'Reilly Factor).

Contrast that with the news of Gates, Crowley, Obama, and Biden having a beer at the White House. The meeting yesterday wasn't a Disney special... there was no magical apologies for the men who still have significant disagreements about what transpired. But what's significant was there was no yelling, no interrupting, and instead, quite a bit of listening. And each who came out of the meeting felt much more positive about the future.

You might want to dismiss this as a photo op, meant to defuse a tense situation, but the symbolic significance of the images from the White House have a lot of power for teaching and learning. Here you had 4 grown men coming together to discuss their matters calmly, in private. In a phrase, civil discourse.

The concepts of engaging in a civil discourse as well as understanding a different perspective are essential 21st century skills. And, practical measures needed to keep a positive culture in a school. My days of being a principal were filled with these type of meetings (sans beer), where a student, the teacher, the parent and I would sit and have a civil discourse about what was happening in the classroom. The best teachers I had would do this regularly on their own, and some who struggled a bit participated in many, some after bad flare-ups with email and 3rd part gossip.

To this day, I feel the most important component of a principal's leadership is the ability to listen, and that is what made these meetings successful. And like the four from the Gates' incident, we didn't always get pollyanish apologies, but we handled ourselves respectfully and came away with an understanding of where we go from here. And of most significance to me, the problem always got much better.

I think those of us in education know this innately. The hard part is helping teach the power of civil discourse to students, so that they help our society instead of hindering it. Here's the power of that image above.

Obama categorized this event as a teachable moment. Juxtaposing this scene with the scene from Castle's town hall takes no explanation. Which is solving problems? Which is the one you would feel comfortable attending? Something we can use in our classrooms.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Meeting Strangers Online a Good Thing?

Interesting quote from Shelly Blake-Plock:

Meeting strangers is a good thing.

So often our fears about technological connectivity center around the fear of what sorts of strangers our students might bump into out there online. Fact is: we should want them to meet strangers. That’s the point. You don’t make the world better by isolating yourself; you make the world better by engaging with it and sharing opinions, ideas, and observations with all sorts of people. Our task as teachers -- and as parents -- is to help our kids understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relations between strangers online. One way to do this is by modeling the behaviors we expect of digital citizens in the classroom everyday. That's not an option anymore; it's part of our job description. We are all health professionals now.

This rings true of what Alan November said at ITEC last year, that students need to interact with this wide, expansive world, and we as teachers need to be evaluated on how well we facilitate that interaction. We cannot let our fears of that expansive world get in the way of learning, much as we can't let our fears of certain ideologies that past world regimes had get in the way of teaching history about those regimes.

Moving away from isolation and toward networked sharing... how well is your school doing this?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Around the Blogosphere - 7/28

A couple of quick jabs from the internet for your perusal:

Shelly Blake-Plock over at TeachPaperless responded to the same question about whether educational games suck that I took on recently.

What I came away with was a feeling that we're approaching this whole matter of gaming and education from the wrong direction. As a longtime educator and gamer, I'm thinking we should go at this from a different angle.

Instead of trying to make better 'educational' games, why not take an educational approach to the classics of gaming as it exists today?

Think about it: we don't ask authors to write 'educational' books so that we have something to teach in school. Rather, we choose books to read and use in teaching. Likewise, we should choose games to 'read' and use in teaching.

In the same way that you can learn about American history from reading Huckleberry Finn, you can learn about economics and cooperative activity by 'reading' World of Warcraft. In fact, gaming -- especially that of the MMOG variety -- has come so far, we really shouldn't have much of a problem teaching all sorts of logic, learning, and abstract thinking via playing and analyzing games that were never originally meant to be 'educational'.

In all honesty, I really like this perspective of basically adding metacognition and reflection to the playing of industry games, and his analogy to novels is very poignant. Still, it doesn't address what Mark Prensky would advocate, that being to take all your learning objectives and deliver them through gaming instead of traditional instruction, because "gaming is where students learn best." It brings up an interesting way to frame the question; should games be used in school as textbooks are or novels are?

Also, (hat tip to Matt Townsley) Rick DuFour of PLC fame has weighed in on the issue of grading and homework in a well-written piece. He starts by pointing out the various definitions teachers have of what a grade represents, and even if teachers agree a grade represents the level of mastery of a student, often their grading practices don't follow their beliefs. Here are his suggestions:

Therefore, I submit the following propositions:

  1. Homework should be given only when the instructor feels it is essential to student learning. If, for example, the teacher believes that by practicing a skill and receiving prompt and specific feedback students will learn at higher levels, homework is very appropriate and should be assigned.
  2. The teacher then has an obligation to monitor the homework carefully and provide individual students with precise feedback based on their specific needs.
  3. If the work is deemed essential to a student’s learning, that student should not have the option of taking a zero but instead should be required to complete the work. This necessitates a coordinated, schoolwide approach to responding when students do not complete their work because there are limits as to what an individual teacher can require. The schoolwide response should be timely, directive (non-invitational), systematic (not left to the discretion of individual teachers), and should never require the student to be removed from new direct instruction.

Which I couldn't agree more with. And for kicks, he adds this anecdote:

My friend and colleague Bob Eaker elected to stop having all fifth graders in the school he was leading complete the annual homework project of building a replica of a frontier fort because, as he put it, “We discovered some Dads just built better forts than others.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

Educational Gaming--A Hopeless Cause?

Scott McLeod posted an analysis of the graphics of education games vs. commercial games, which is very telling. There is no comparison in the quality of the graphics, as educational games have a limited budget and typically do not sell on the basis of their graphical quality. Scott asked the questions 1) Does the quality of the graphics make a difference? and 2) How bad are games on the basis of other factors (he cites "game complexity" as another factor he sees lacking)?

As much as I'd like to say that graphics do not make a difference, indeed I think they do. A tremendous difference. One commenter mentioned that graphics create an immersive experience, which is a good way of phrasing it. Not everyone needs an immersive experience that Madden or Grand Theft Auto provide, but I'd say a substantial amount do. Give a student a Sudoku puzzle and see if they are enthralled after 15 minutes. Those that are can handle educational games with a good challenge but limited graphics. But my money is on 3/4 the class not being interested.

What's even worse is that educational games for secondary students suffer worse on other levels. They tend to be very specific in their objective, looking at math facts for example, and as Russ Goerend put it, become a glorified worksheet. This is because they are packaged as "standards-meeting". And in doing so, they eliminate the opportunities for creativity, problem-solving, and ingenuity on behalf of the student.

Educational games are also slow to adopt the techniques that work in commercial games--the process of "unlocking" stages and items to spur motivation or the using tie-ins to characters from already-known story lines like Harry Potter or Star Wars. Worst of all, there is no market for inventive games. They are overly expensive to make just to reach a limited audience (the percentage of the top education games in total schools is much less than the percentage of commerical games in total households). Plus, unlike webquests or iLife projects, it is impossible for teachers to develop them themselves.

Of course, all of this applies to secondary grades, not elementary, where the simple games can be a positive, and simple graphics meet the expectations of students. The simplicity of games being yet another reason why the iPod Touch platform, where simple games are easier to come across, works well for elementary students.

But I'm not sure gaming is the perfect solution for students in the secondary level. Not because the concept of gaming isn't a motivation for students... it is. Its when you couple the amateurish nature of secondary level games with the inadequacy to cover content comprehensively, the reality of gaming falls flat. At least for now.

Perhaps our stimulus money should go to Nintendo for some educational R & D?

Related Posts About Gaming
Game-Based Online Courses
One Year of Webkinz
Mark Prensky
Recovering from Second Life

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Gifted Teacher

A question I've been pondering for a while is "What do we do to help our gifted teachers become better?" I find the following perspective on a staff by a principal a fairly representative one:

For the most part, our teachers do very well. We all have ways we can improve, and for the most part, our professional development and my face-to-face conversations and evaluations meet the needs of our typical teachers.

There are two other groups of teachers. One group is a group that is struggling, and unfortunately take up much of my time in addressing professional obligations not met or handling parental or student conflicts with the teacher. With this group, I am working with them individually, helping them with intensive assistance. And while this is one thing that is taboo to say, it is true that with a few who cannot fit into the system, I have looked for the best method to part ways.

But there is another group, the high-flyers. These teachers have such an understanding and brilliance that everything they do is a model of excellence. I'm afraid I don't have much to offer them... it's not like I can teach them how to be a better choir instructor when I've never taught choir. This group improves on their own, and it's my strategy to stay out of their way as much as possible.

What's remarkable is that, substituting the notion of job performance with the notion of learning, the description is the same of what a principal or teacher might say about students.

As a former TAG teacher, I could go on and on about the dangers of taking that last approach with gifted students. They have just as much right to learn as others. By not developing the best and the brightest, we stunt those who have a great chance to dramatically improve our society. They can offer the class many talents that improve learning for all. It is unethical. And, it is lazy. But as a principal who was guilty of this approach as well, I can say it becomes necessary if I don't have help figuring out a better answer.

This is, of course, validated by all the literature about talented and gifted education that is out there. What is interesting is, I don't see a corresponding set of literature about the gifted teacher. Are not all the things above true for gifted teachers as they are gifted students? And yet, the national discussion continues back to the dilemma of the least talented of teachers and the drain on our educational system.

It's not as though I have the answer, however. I use this as a selling point for the need for PLNs, and it is true that helping gifted teachers network with other gifted teachers does help them grow. But I'm not satisfied with that answer. The onus for improvement is put upon the teacher, as it is with a hands-off "get out of their way" approach.

What do we do to help our gifted teachers improve?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rumination on primary integration and the iPod Touch

My wife, who teaches Kindergarten, and I were having a conversation recently about technology integration at the primary level, as we are wont to do often. She has recently been asked to help the district prepare technology lessons for the primary level. And, the task was proving to be difficult, mainly because there are some misconceptions about primary technology integration.

While the district's technology leadership is very strong, they don't have experience teaching at the primary level. So what would be fruitful for other grade levels--making example lessons that integrate technology while accessing the curriculum--doesn't work here.


We looked at our options. Kidspiration is the most promising program, as it allows teachers to prepare graphical organizers. You could have students sort objects that start with "B" into one circle and objects that start with "T' into another. Or you can put the four pictures of a sequential story in order. Or you could record your voice with the object, giving students working on speech or phonological awareness a chance to practice.

There are just too many logistical problems with using this, however. For one, Kindergartners will have trouble opening up the file. You'd have to train the students to 1) open the program, 2) go click on the open button, 3) navigate to the title (which pre-literate students wouldn't be able to read), 4) highlight it, and then 5) click the open button... all for what could be a 5 minute activity.

Then, when students finish the activity at different times, there is no good way to transition them on to the next Kidspiration activity. You will need teacher guidance to repeat the above procedure, which will be impossible with some students finishing the first activity in 3 minutes and others finishing in 25.

Plus, there is the never-mentioned issue of attention. We think computers are inexhaustiably attention-holding, but the truth is that many Kindergartners will lose attention with computer activities that don't vary for over 15 minutes.

And of course, there is the issue of teacher burn-out. I don't particularly care how great Kidspiration is as a program, if you as a teacher need to devise 5-10 activities each time your class goes to the computer lab, you're going to be tired of it as well.

The flip side of this is to let student curiosity run, having them create their own materials with programs. This works very well with Kidspiration, and even better with drawing programs like Kidpix. Problem is, this isn't what the district wanted. It allows students to build the 21st century skills (like creativity and problem-solving), but you give up the focus on specific curricular objectives (like the sorting of "T" words and "B" words from above).

Or the flip side is to purchase stock programs that have a curricular bend to them, such as Reader Rabbit. But again, you lose control over specific curricular objectives that you are trying to meet. And neither of these two options allow for quality assessment to take place.


It was at this time in the car trip that we noticed our kids, 8, 7, and 3, weren't bickering, despite all indicators suggesting it was to be a long car ride before we started (never in my life before kids did I ever think where you sat in the car could be such a big deal).

The answer, especially for our 3-year-old, was the iPod Touch. I know I will be casted as a lazy parent to say my 3-year-old gets to use the "iTouch" for an hour and a half in the car, but the device is a lifesaver. Case in point, we would never have been able to have our conversation about primary integration beforehand.

Here is the remarkable thing about the iTouch. It is graphically as rich as anything you would find on a computer, and rich in terms of audio capabilities. There is a versatile set of apps (many, many are free) that challenge her in all types of ways. It is ultra-portable and very functional, even without an internet connection. And best of all, it can be run without typing or literacy limitations. My three-year-old can access any program that she likes and doesn't have to type anything to get there or run the programs.


It was my wife who thought out loud, "You know what we should do, we should buy a lab of iTouch's for the Kindergarten." Rather than force them to use a computer for the sake of computering, give them technology that works for them. iPod Touch's are a fraction of the cost of regular computers (especially Macs), and because of their portability, can easily be shared (and don't take up a lab).

I've been skeptical of cell phone and iPod use in the classroom, despite adopting iPod use in the classroom 4 years ago as a teacher. While I've seen that they have had their place, they easily become more about the gadget than the actual curricular objective.

But for Kindergarten & 1st grade, this is entirely different. A computer is more about the gadget than learning in K-1, not the iTouch. But moreover, technology integration shouldn't be about the curricular objective at these grade levels... a stark contrast to the rest of the grades. This time is a time of rapid neural development and inquisitive growth, and to force-fit students into a task that exercises one concept actually slows them down. The iTouch can surround the student with many different learning opportunities.

If I were a superintendent or elementary principal, I would invest my technology dollars into labs of iPod Touch's for primary students and examine software that would be best for the development of their minds.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Politics in Developing Standards

If you ever feel frustration at how you perceive the Iowa Core was developed, it is good to consider a state like Texas, and then reconsider. After making news in appointing a creationist to head the state's educational board, the state continues to look for outside influences for its schools.

Recently, they asked 6 individuals for their thoughts on the state's history curriculum, which they will use to revise the standards in the coming year. Out of those 6 are David Barton, a founder of WallBuilders, a "group that promotes America's Christian heritage", and Reverend Peter Marshall, a pastor who "preaches that Watergate, the Vietnam War, and Hurricane Katrina were God's judgment on the nation's sexual immorality".

Some of their suggestions, from the Wall Street Journal:

Multi-culturalism and diversity awareness should be pared back. According to Barton, "Reaching for examples of achievement by different racial and ethnic groups is divisive and distorts history."

Delete Anne Hutchinson from a list of colonial leaders. According to Marshall, "Anne Hutchinson does not belong in the company of these eminent gentlemen. She was certainly not a significant colonial leader, and didn't accomplish anything except getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble."

Include the study of America's Religious Revival Movement. Or as they state, "Evangelist Billy Graham should be included on a list of transformational leaders of the 20th century and students in fifth and eight grades should study the colonial-era religious revival known as the Great Awakening as a force in shaping a national identity."

Replace Thurgood Marshall with Harriet Tubman or Sam Houston. Marshall described Thurgood Marshall as a weak example of someone who has influenced the course of history. He suggested Tubman or Houston as better examples.

Delete César Chávez from a list of figures who modeled active participation in the democratic process. "He's hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation," Rev. Marshall wrote.

and my personal favorite...

Replace references to America's "democratic" values with "republican" values. As Barton explains: "We don't pledge allegiance to the flag and the democracy for which it stands."

The process was not without political balance, as university history professors "representing the liberal to moderate view" also expressed some suggestions as well, which can be argued, show as much political influence in the shaping of curriculum as the conservative viewpoints.

That Barton and Marshall, as well as the others expressed their viewpoints with obvious political slants is not that troubling. What is troubling is the state's desire to have those slants have such a large influence over their curriculum. Given that Texas has a very large textbook market, if the proposed changes find their way into textbooks, they will have an influence over other state's curriculum as well, including Iowa.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Wiggins: "Testing & Whining"

You wouldn't expect Grant Wiggins to have anything positive to say about standardized testing. After all, Wiggins (of Understanding by Design fame) has been the champion of authentic assessment for decades, commonly pointing out the inefficiencies of multiple choice. Imagine my surprise when I read this from his Testing & Whining post:

What do you learn from looking at all these tests? Two utterly counter-intuitive facts. 1) The bulk of the test questions are not factoids but perfectly reasonable questions that only someone who had learned with understanding could answer correctly. (The exception, not surprisingly, is History). 2) The hardest questions are the questions that require understanding - transfer of prior learning. This is especially true in math and reading. The hardest questions in Florida on the reading test involved identifying main idea or author purpose.

I'm not sure I fully agree with the statement above. The questions I see on the ITBS indeed are not factoids, but they also are not tied to a curriculum. They are very heavy in inferential thinking (even in the "history" section), and it's a leap to say "only someone who had learned with understanding could answer correctly". Learned what? Last I checked, the main premise around the Iowa Core and every school's curriculum was a whole lot more than inferential thinking.

But there is an important thought in what he says. Many opponents of standardized testing argue it is the lowest level of thinking required. This isn't true... it actually requires more cognition in the "comprehension" and "application" levels than in the "knowledge" level. And what is more important, this is in stark contrast to locally-made (i.e. teacher-created) tests:

Most local assessment, ironically, is of poorer quality - mostly simple factoids and plug and chug skills being sought. Few people disagree with this claim in workshops. Indeed, they typically wince and nod in agreement.

I can't agree more. Here's the true danger in our current assessment in Iowa schools: too many unit tests serving as all-knowing assessments that look for a student's memorization of the bold-face vocabulary words and "things to remember for the test" from the day's-before review session.

This is a fair warning for us not to make a straw man out of standardized testing. We need standardized testing to be able to know how students are mastering the curriculum. We need their technical accuracy and reliability, and yes, we need accountability. It just should be in the form of authentic measurements, not multiple choice.

Related posts on authentic assessments:
Call for Action: Authentic Standardized Assessment
Program Evaluation of 1:1 Environments
NAEP Assessment for Technology?
Tony Wagner in the Des Moines Register

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Leadership Day, 2009

Scott McLeod issued today to be the annual leadership day, encouraging bloggers everywhere to comment on leadership regarding today's schools (and more specifically, leadership's understanding of digital technologies). For those unfamiliar with Scott's work with CASTLE, his central premise is that a) we need to change drastically to move our schools into the 21st century, and b) the ones who have the most influence to change schools (administrators) are the ones that are least knowledgeable about technology.

And, Scott's absolutely correct. In part. Superintendents, principals, and curriculum directors do have the least amount of knowledge about digital technologies in the classroom. But that's only half the problem.

The other half is that technology coordinators--those that have the most influence over technology use itself--are not leaders. And what's more, even if administrators do become knowledgeable about the use of technology, they often become deferrential to technology coordinators who have their own vision of how technology will run in the district.

This happens much more than it should. I have had four conversations in the past month with administrators from districts who were eager to help teachers teach for the 21st century. After some initial talks, I asked the question, "What is your technology coordinator currently doing to help support these goals?" And, there is some uncomfortable silence, maybe even a subtle scoff. Which is as far as the conversation goes.

Below is a repost of my analysis of the issue, originally posted on 11/22/08:

The first thing to make clear is that, by and large, technology coordinators are doing a good job. From first-hand experience, I can vouch for the never-stop responsibilities of maintaining a district's technology. A colleague of mine said "You can throw many changes at teachers on a continual basis, but if you truly want to bring the system to its knees, take down the email server." Or as another one mentioned, "When hard drives crash, I truly get to see people at their worst."

There also are teachers doing a great job in the classroom, many taking it upon themselves to research the technology and experiment with ways to better use it to enhance learning. Some take it upon themselves to write grants for their classroom to add technology.

Neither of these are leadership. And, this is where most districts get stuck. This is isolated pockets of excellence, but without a central vision and leader to ensure the whole group is moving forward, these pockets won't go anywhere.

There are often two different technology coordinators that you will see in districts. When technology first emerged, there was one teacher who worked a little bit more with technology than others. As the district grew, the technology demands required time spent outside of the classroom to manage it, and the district often grabbed the one who dabbled the most with it. In many of our smaller and more rural districts, the technology coordinator is in this mode, a former teacher who has morphed into the manager of hardware and software. In addition, some larger districts have had the resources to fund a different type of position, an integration specialist. Once again, the premier technology-integrating teachers gravitated into those positions.

But larger districts reached a threshold when networking and database management became significant. It required specialization. And much like other companies, districts have been hiring network specialists to manage this sophistication.

Neither of these two groups, despite their talents, have been trained in leadership. And when there are some rare cases where technology management is naturally talented in leadership (Pella or Jefferson-Scranton, for example), those districts become leaders in the state.

Another way to look at it: when I went through my administrative graduate program through Viterbo, I was the only technology coordinator in the state doing so. My instructors were, for good reason, quite surprised to see someone like me, as were districts looking to hire an administrator.

A dynamic that is present in education is the one of control vs. influence. Take away for a second the negative connotations of the word "control". As people move out of the classroom into the realm of administration, they notice the control they had of managing every item that took place in their classroom was now sacrificed. Principals don't have a corresponding level of control in every corner of their building. They do, on the other hand, have influence. It becomes even more pronounced as one moves to superintendent. Good administrators understand this dynamic. They understand they have to sacrifice the control they once enjoyed to greater influence the learning community.

Both network specialists and integration specialists have great influence. Unfortunately, most see their job as one of great control. They don't have the skills to build consensus and human capacity the way an influential leader does.

The Iowa Core recommends that technology staff are part of the leadership teams planning the district's deployment of the core. I can say, both as someone who is working with Core leadership and technology staff, this isn't happening. With the Iowa Core, we have the capacity to bring about an avenue for digital curriculum adoption. But, imagine the roadblock when the leadership team determines it would like to go there without the technology coordinator at the table.

If a district is going to get to the digital curriculum, it would be truly beneficial to require administrative certification of its technology coordinator. This means we need a leadership academy to get them there. Even if it doesn't mean administrative certification, a CASTLE-type program for technology coordinators, possibly building off of the programs at UNI and Iowa State, but more geared for the district-level rather than the PhD.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tinkering Camp

Another TED talk that I love. This one is from Gever Tulley, who runs "Tinkering Camp", a camp where there is no curriculum or objectives outside of what is determined by student curiosity, and students are never told that they can't work with materials. The video speaks for itself:

More on curiosity-based education:
21st Century Skill: Being Curious
Rethinking Giftedness
Math Education... Is There Room for Student Curiosity?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Math Education... Is There Room for Student Curiosity?

Bruce Smith, a guest blogger at, re-visits an important debate about mathematics education. Math in schools has been traditionally the most linear, sequential curriculum out of all the subject areas, as one skill builds on another skill. Because of this, it also tends to be the most repetitive and routine-based instruction that you see. The question is, does it have to be this way?

With the Iowa Core's emphasis on moving to real-world problems and higher-order thinking, math sticks out like a sore thumb. It requires narrowing down the curriculum, more depth and less breadth, and allowing for student creativity and curiosity. Want to do that in language arts or social studies? No problem. Math? There is resistance.

At Grinnell, I visited often with what I consider a very progressive math faculty. As a group, they used some very original "quadrant-D" lessons involving performance assessments to deepen learning. And they would have liked to do more. But as I found out, there were limits. One teacher mentioned that when regional math instructors looked through their curriculum at an AEA math conference, they found a paltry three concepts that they could remove. Which, won't get you the time you need for that type of instruction.

So in essence, math is a final frontier. If math can change to a curiosity-based, less-rigid curriculum, everything else can as well.

That's what is interesting about Smith's article. He refers to a somewhat famous critique of math education by Paul Lockhart called the Mathematician's Lament. Math instrution is described as "dull" and "mundane". Actually, that's the tame stuff. A more vivid passage from Lockhart:

If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child's natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn't possibly do as good a job as is currently being done—I simply wouldn't have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

It is then the description of math as the "music of reason", the "purest of arts". And, this resonates with my memories of middle school math so long ago. When math is presented as "Here's the concept, here's the rules to remember, here's an example problem, and here are the 30 problems in the book to try it out yourself" (but just the odd numbered ones, of course), it does destroy any desire I had to determine natural patterns myself.

On the other hand, in my TAG pull-out sessions, we were allowed to explore topics and learn unhindered. A friend of mine and I determined a mathematical method for determining the worth of baseball players, when simply comparing home run totals or batting average isn't sufficient. I remember it being very elaborate, finding a way to factor in not only power, average, and defense, but also intangibles, like advancing the runners, hitting the cutoff person, and whether the team was better or worse when they were in the lineup.

It was very crude, but with the advent of Sabermetrics as a widely-credited method for analyzing baseball, you could almost argue the work we did was ahead of its time. It certainly wasn't irrelevant, and it definitely met the marks of "quadrant-D" and "performance assessment". Most importantly, we learned that we had to find mathematical explanations for patterns and thoughts in order to bring everything together. In other words, I learned, because I was allowed to see the art of numbers and patterns.

The problem is, I'm not sure of the scalability. Is there a way to allow math classrooms everywhere to be a place of discovery? Does the Iowa Core hurt that possibility or help it? And, are my perceptions due to being a TAG-student, perhaps more adept at one form of instruction than others?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Google Chrome OS

Google has announced that it plans to release an open source operating system over the course of the next year (and would be available for people to install on their netbooks in the second half of 2010).

This is significant for Iowa educators for several reasons, not the least of which being that with the Google Data Center coming to Council Bluffs, there is potential for greater partnerships and grants for Iowa schools. First, it further signifies Google's desire to be the computing solution for everything. Forward-thinking would be for Iowa schools to look beyond Microsoft products to Google as "software students need to know for the workplace".

Even more important, open source technology has been the mythical answer to the problem of high costs. Schools that have been reluctant to purchase computers that have a $1000+ price tag wouldn't be as resistant if the price was $200. But while advances in netbook technology get us very close to that reality, there is a lot of resistance to venturing into open source software. To install free linux on your school's netbooks would save the district substantial money, but it takes quite a bit of expertise in linux to overcome the lack of software support.

That perhaps changes with Google. It remains to be seen how much support Google would offer in terms of automatic updates and security patches and such, but this will get more than one technology coordinator in the state to rethink the possibilities of open source.

And finally, there is Google's message that all applications on the OS will be web-based, thus running on every possible platform out there. We've seen the movement to web-based software, be it blogging or wikis or Google Docs for some time now, but while I'm not sure everyone will be switching over to Chrome OS in the next 5 years, this can't help but accelerate the movement to web-based software.

The end result? Software could get cheaper for schools. Drastically. And soon.

One more reason to stoke the 1:1 conversations.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Correct Use of Zeros

Cathy Vatterott has an excellent article at the ASCD blog on the grading practice of giving zeros. She highlights a proposal by the Houston Independent School District to eliminate the practice of giving zeros (a good thing) with giving unearned 50% marks (a not-so-good thing).

First, an excellent analysis of the power of zeros:

Why do students get zeros on homework? Because we allow students not to complete work. Zeros are an easy way out—simply label students lazy for not completing homework (without trying to figure out why), and the teacher is absolved of all responsibility. Zeros punish the vice of laziness, but is laziness the reason most students don't complete assignments, especially homework? I don't think so.

I'd add two things; good teaching is not predicated on punishment, but rather of learning. So, we shouldn't be in the business of "punishing for the vice of laziness". Regardless, a zero really isn't punishment. You want to punish a student who is lazy? Make them turn in the assignment!

Which, Vatterott is already ahead of me:

I think the better solution is a "Zeros Aren't Permitted" (ZAP) program, an increasingly popular idea where zeros are used merely as placeholders until work is made up or excused.

My own grading practices as a teacher eventually evolved into that practice, and it was one of the best classroom management practices I could have. Students, knowing that they couldn't pass the class unless all assignments were handed in and done well were more likely to do them well the first time. And even if they did procrastinate and turn them in late, at least I had something to assess their knowledge for the different course outcomes.

Vatterott puts this in perspective:

ZAP makes more work for the teacher and administrators, but it puts the emphasis back on learning. As we continue to move toward more standards-based grading and the argument rages about how to "hold students accountable," are we all asking the same question? Is it "How many assignments have the students completed?" instead of "How much have the students learned?" Grades should reflect what a student knows or can do, not what work he or she has completed.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Better Tool Training for Educators

Before we mentioned how schools mistakenly put training on tools ahead of the purpose of using technology in the curriculum. Switching that order is still the most critical item for successful technology professional development. The ideal order:

But, we have room to improve within the tool subset as well. That is, once we get to the part where we train educators how to use Microsoft Word (or blogging or Voicethread, etc.) we still don't do it well.

Below is a graphic that demonstrates typical PD steps used to learn a tool:

Some thoughts with this. 1) Schools are getting much better at getting past the first step, "awareness". But there are still many times when I've fielded the request, "Can you come out to our district and show us all the different web 2.0 tools out there?" And then, nothing else. If the school district doesn't provide professional development time and opportunities to do the next steps, expecting staff to do it on their own, it won't happen.

2) The next three stages work together, and often not sequentially. For example, you might start with an idea of how you'd like to use a wiki to develop collaboration in the classroom first before starting to learn how to make a wiki. Once you get started, you might see that you can upload files like MS Word documents and pdfs to a wiki, and you might reconceptualize how you would use it in your classroom. And, that might require you to learn more specifics on how to create a wiki. Regardless of the number of times you bounce back and forth between those stages, the purpose is to gain enough experience to use the tool independently.

3) We need to diversify the ways we do steps 2 and 3 as well. Gaining competence by having everyone in the lab at the same time as I go step-by-step how to make a power point is not effective (ask the poor teachers at Howard-Winneshiek who suffered through those years ago). People learn at different paces. They get curious and want to explore different features than everyone else. And they learn best from each other. Having flexible groups (with teacher quality money assistance), professional learning communities, individual tutoring sessions, and using resources like Atomic Learning allow people to learn at their own pace. The key... learning at your own pace does not mean learning on your own.

4) But the three thoughts above don't even scratch the surface of this last thought. We spend too much time, even on professional development directed by AEA staff, on steps 1, 2, and 3. That isn't professional development. That's training. And there is a big difference.

A quick example. We at Heartland give thousands of power points a year, to all types of different audiences of educators on all types of different topics. Our staff have stage 4 "experience" down pat.

But, until recently, we never talked about what made an effective power point. Sure we can use a template and put in bullets and such, but does that mean you should? The answer is a resounding no. Bullet points in a power point lead to rote reading off the slides, shifting the audience's attention away from the presenter, and ultimately making the presentation less effective. Or another easy example to see, just because you can add sound effects and transitions doesn't mean you should.

There is a level with technology professional development that gets at the best practices of using a tool. It gets beyond the "how do I use a tool" to the "how should I use a tool". And this is where professional development truly is. And accompanying this is actual evaluation of how you are using tools so that you can improve your practice. The evaluation of technology use by teachers themselves I have yet to seen done in an impressive way. And indeed, this is a topic of many posts in the future.

At Heartland, we're wrestling with that question as well. We have started training of our staff on Moodle, Adobe Connect Pro, Ning, and other online content creation programs in an effort to ramp up our capacity to deliver online content to schools. But, our aim is true professional development for our agency consultants, and that's a tall order, when best practices for how to facilitate a Ning forum or how to create a Moodle unit are in their infancy.

How well does your school get up to the steps of true professional development and evaluation?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Debate on Charter Schools in Iowa

In case you missed it, Chad Aldeman had a guest editorial in the Register about charter schools in Iowa on June 17. In the article, Aldeman laments that Iowa caps the number of charters to 20 and allows them only to be run by public school districts. In an effort to encourage naysayers to relax the reins, he argues that charter schools should have to face very tough accountability measures or be closed, as well as have a mechanism to share what works with public districts.

I won't go into a full discussion on charters here, nor of Iowa's firm anti-private charter history; the basics of the debate are already well known. Aldeman writes an article that avoids some of the worst stereotyping that other pro-charter advocates do, such as blaming teachers or deploring our schools as worthless. And in that respect, it is a good piece towards a healthy discussion.

In my mind, what is at the essence of the debate is the notion of innovation. More specifically, what is the best way to bring about innovation? Magically, that seems to be the universally agreed upon variable. Superintendents lament the amount of NCLB oversight and budgetary limitations that keep them from doing innovative things in their district. Teachers grumble about intrusion into their classroom. The DE and AEAs champion innovative schools as models for the Iowa Core (which are ironically charter schools). Even parents and students are magnetically drawn to innovative teachers... ask them who their favorite is and you'll see the correlation.

The problem is, everything we do outside of that lip service stifles innovation. Everything is tied into the term "researched-based", which to me seems at direct odds with "innovative". "Researched-Based" is a central tenant of the Iowa Core, which means we will be looking for instructional practices that have withstood the test of time. While at the same time trying to change our schools for the 21st century.

The national debate around 1:1 laptop initiatives is a good example. Critics (fairly so) argue 1:1 initiatives are driven hard by technology companies like Apple and HP, which cherry-pick research to show effectiveness. The critics then use other studies showing no effect. Perhaps the critics are right, perhaps not. But for the districts using 1:1 computers in Iowa, that's a moot question. Innovation is more important. They are conducting their own research, rather than relying on out-of-state studies that are very possibly skewed by an agenda.

That's where we are with charters in Iowa, as well as other topics, like online education. Perhaps they are effective, perhaps they are not. But we have to be honest with ourselves: the research we are waiting for the rest of the nation to complete on charters will be skewed on way or another, depending on the agenda. If there are elements of charters that seem to bring about innovation, we should agree to try ways to implement those, for the sake of conducting our own action research and seeing for ourselves if they work or not.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tackling the dropout problem with constructivist teaching

Perhaps we are dealing with dropout prevention in the wrong manner.

Maybe that's too strong... perhaps I should say, maybe we are missing an important ingredient. The dropout-prevention focus in most high schools in Iowa is two-fold: 1) find students flexible credit recovery options that meet their learning needs and give the a fresh start, and 2) build solid relationships with school personnel that will drive students to stay in school.

But perhaps a third focus should be on the learning model. A great story has emerged about Camden's MetEast High School in New Jersey. Camden, known for its smokestacks, pollution, and low income levels, is not a promising socio-economic location for a student to thrive. But while other schools have struggled (near lowest in the state in scores, near highest in dropout percentage), MetEast has done the exact opposite. In fact, it graduated all of its students this year, even ones who became pregnant or moved to different districts.

One might say that the key is being a charter school, much like the success that KIPP schools have had. But I'm not so sure of that. There are no requirements for admission to this school--students are chosen via lottery. Perhaps it is the fact it is a smaller school (30 to a graduating class).

But in asking the administrators and students, MSNBC found it is the constructivist project-based learning model that the school uses. Similar to the model the New Tech schools use (which have gained the attention of Iowa's Department of Education), MetEast focuses on letting students follow their passions, developing projects around interests, and completing internships. And while that formula has (perhaps not surprisingly) led to no dropouts from the class, it also has led to some of the highest test scores in the state

Now certainly, there is more to this story. There must be great teaching and powerful relationships going on there, despite the article's not focusing on them. It's also a small example... KIPP has had success despite an almost polar-opposite model, and many of its critics have said that over time, the success KIPP has had will diminish.

But for a moment, the take-away from this story is that while we have primarily focused on helping at-risk students catch up after they have fallen behind, perhaps if we changed our educational model, they wouldn't be behind to start with. And more importantly, instead of the focus being on graduating, it can return to learning. Which, is what is truly critical for at-risk students, because their lives do not end upon graduation.

Hat tip to @sethdenney for the link.