Thursday, February 25, 2010

Discovery is More Powerful than Instruction

I remember when I was a child carrying rocks in a bucket.  My friends and I were building a dirt and stone city for our matchbox cars to drive in and I was carrying away some of the rubble from our construction.  I was swinging the bucket back and forth and felt that the dirt was pulling away from my hand as I swung the bucket.  Fascinated by this, I swung the bucket faster and higher until I could swing the bucket around in circles without any rocks falling out, even when the bucket was upside down and over my head.

As soon as I got home, I showed my dad my great discovery.  While my physicist father knew that centrifugal force had been discovered long before I was born, he also knew that in my limited experience, this was a new discovery.  All my father did was beam with pride and pleasure that his son had made a discovery and was in awe of the world around him.

Imagine the different experience I would have had if my father had sat me down for a lecture about centrifugal force instead of experiencing my discovery.

Traditional classrooms operate under a broadcast paradigm.  The assumed expert (the teacher, book, film, etc…) imparts information that the student-consumer is supposed to absorb.  Periodically, the route is reversed and the student must broadcast her information back to the teacher for evaluation.  The more the two broadcasts match, the higher the grade.

Unlike Boomers and Gen X'ers, children born into a digital world are not passive consumers of broadcasts.  They may still listen to music or watch television, but they spend far more time than any previous generation interacting with the media they consume.  They don’t listen to the Top-10 on a radio; they create their own custom play list on their iPod.  They don’t channel surf, they surf the Internet. 

Classroom 2.0 should focus on interaction and discovery and forgo broadcast.  In my social studies class, we are beginning to make this change.  Instead of listening to lectures about ancient China, Mesopotamia, Rome, or Egypt, my students interact with primary source documents.  They read Suetonius’s description of the water projects undertaken by Emperor Claudius and the Code of Hammurabi.  They look at aerial photographs of drainage ditches in Italy and satellite images of ancient levees in Mesopotamia.  They do this in order to write an essay that answers the question, “How did the need for water effect the technological, political, economic, and legal development of the world’s first civilizations?”

They struggle mightily with these documents.  They ask lots of questions of me and of their teams.  I have heard, “I don’t get it” countless times.  They have gotten frustrated with me because I wont “just tell [them] the answer.”  There have even been a few tears.  However, when we hit that moment of discovery; when my students get, really get, that they can see the political and economic cooperation among the city-states of Mesopotamia because the levees are vast and intersect with each other; that moment is indescribable.  They don’t need me to tell them that I am proud of them, because they are proud of themselves.  They don’t need me to be proud of them, but I am.  All I can do is beam with pride and pleasure at my students who have made a discovery and are in awe of the world around them.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

One Test I Love

Tests are supposed to be a sampling.  The idea is this: Because it is impractical to test the whole domain of knowledge and skills that we hope a child will learn this year, we will pick a random sub-set of the domain of all skills and knowledge and test the child on those.  If the child does well on the sub-set, then we hope to be able to infer that she would have done roughly as well on learning the whole domain.

One can think about this as sipping the soup.  Because it is impractical to eat all of the soup to see if all of it is good, we stir the soup and taste just a spoonful.  We infer that the flavor of the spoonful is a good representation for the rest of the soup.

Extending this analogy, a good test is the spoon and the domain of all of the skills and knowledge taught in the class is the soup.  When we attach high-stakes to the test; when we teach to the test; when we designate the standards that are tested to be PowerStandards then we are, in effect, spending our time worrying about the spoonful and neglecting the soup.

In Oakland Unified School District, we have an exam that does just that.  It is the 10th and 11th grade History Writing Assessment.  The district expects that every sophomore and junior learn how to interpret primary source documents and create and argument answering a deep question on a topic in history.  The topic is randomly selected from the body of topics that students study.  In the summer, teachers organize the document set and write the question.  Our idea is that the job students doing analyzing the documents and writing the essay will be representative of the job they would have done on any topic from their class given an appropriate set of documents.

Not only does this assessment pass my spoon test – it really does give us a representative sample by which we can infer the performance of a student about any topic covered in the class – it also is authentic.  It is the work that real historians do.  Real historians don’t read chapter 5 section 3 of a textbook.  Real historians do not take quizzes on Friday nor do they take test at the end of a unit.  On the contrary, real historians search for primary sources, they read and interpret them, create an argument, and they write.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Teacher Compensation and Retention

Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA's) are the contractual agreements between teachers and their school districts. Without changes to these documents, then school reforms will remain framed by the agreements of the past.
Perhaps the stickiest issue is teacher compensation and job security, In nearly every CBA, teachers receive strong job security in return for low compensation as compared to other degreed professionals. For example: I've been teaching in California for 14 years, I have over 90 post BA graduate units, but no advanced degrees. I make low 60k a year in salary. This is lower than most starting salaries for degreed professions. Typically starting salaries in business is between 70-80k. BUT after two year, like many teachers around the country, I become a "permanent employee." This designation means that if my school wanted to fire me, the administration would have to follow a highly-regimented process that would likely take 1.5 to 2 years. My union would fight them all along the way. Most school districts do not want to take the time, the energy, and the political capital to fire a teacher whose only fault is mediocre or poor teaching. This is VASTLY different that being called into Trump’s office and having the boss point a finger at me and say, “You’re fired!”
After reading Bill Ferriter 's article called Performance Pay Will Kill Our Schools, I started thinking...
How much money would teachers need to make to take job-security out of future contracts?

Starting salaries of $70,000? Top salaries of $150,000
Starting salaries of $100,000? Top Salaries of $200,000

What would it take to make teacher compensation look more like professional compensation, meaning that teacher are earning similar dollars as other starting professionals fresh out of school with an MBA (in my mind an MBA=Teaching Credential)?

Would governments and boards of education be willing to pay this kind of compensation if it meant that they could get rid of the 10-15% of teaching professionals who are duds?

Would teachers be more focused on doing a good job if their performance review could lead to promotion or the loss of their job?

Is this conversation a third rail is for teachers' unions? Can unions discuss it among ourselves and clarify our thinking before we go public?

If teachers were being paid top dollar – would we then agree on an evaluation protocol that is robust and linked to student learning? I’m not talking test scores here – I’m talking about training school administrators to have use robust system of agreed-upon classroom learning targets:

· X% will achieve these learning targets as shown in these products
· 100-X=Y% will not achieve the learning targets and will have received this intervention protocol with this report listing agreed upon modified learning targets and products.
· Y% will achieve their modified learning target results as shown on the modified products.
· 100-Y=Z% will not achieve their modified learning targets and will have received this secondary intervention protocol with this second report listing newly agreed upon modified learning targets and products
· ETC…

Wikipedia in the Classroom

This is a shared post. The sections in bold come from called Rethinking the future of learning institutions: 10 principals by John Norton, published in October of 2009. Specifically, this post is looking at the principal of "De-Centered Pedagogy." from that article. I am writing about it here because it reminded me of a discussion I read sometime back about the relative usefulness of Wikipedia as a source in historical research. The non-bold sections are my thoughts on Mr. Norton's ideas.
In secondary schools and higher education, many administrators and individual teachers have been moved to limit use of collectively and collaboratively crafted knowledge sources, most notably Wikipedia, for course assignments or to issue quite stringent guidelines for their consultation and reference.26 This is a catastrophically anti-intellectual reaction to a knowledgemaking, global phenomenon of epic proportions.

To ban sources such as Wikipedia is to miss the importance of a collaborative, knowledge-making impulse in humans who are willing to contribute, correct, and collect information without remuneration: by definition, this is education. To miss how much such collaborative, participatory learning underscores the foundations of learning is defeatist, unimaginative, even self destructive.
Schools and teachers are banning sites like Wikipedia because they do not fit well into the traditional paradigm of assumed authority. In that paradigm, knowledge is something that is created my accepted experts. Students and amateur spend years reading the knowledge of the experts. As the student or amateur grows in experience, then she/he can begin to take a more and more active role in questioning, then challenging the acknowledged experts. If the student or amateur become good enough at questioning and challenging, then she is allowed to engage in some supervised information creation (writing her thesis, dissertation, or scholarly articles) if the community of acknowledged experts accepts her, then she is admitted into the club and is allowed to continue to create knowledge.
Wikipedia is not an accepted authority of information – often the information is biased or factually incorrect, especially for recent, evolving, or emotionally charged subjects. As such – Wikipedia is not a proper resource in a world ruled by the assumed-authority paradigm.
On the contrary, it a world defined by the community knowledge-making paradigm, Wikipedia is an acceptable and attractive platform. This new paradigm will gain momentum once enough people have grown up and been trained in thinking about knowledge as something we create in community instead of being trained to think that knowledge is something that one finds in authoritative sources and only acknowledged authorities have the right to create new authoritative sources.
Instead, leaders at learning institutions need to adopt a more inductive, collective pedagogy that takes advantage of our era. John Seely Brown has noted that it took professional astronomers many years to realize that the benefits to their field of having tens of thousands of amateur stargazers reporting on celestial activity far outweighed the disadvantages of unreliability.

This was a colossal observation, given that among the cohort of amateur astronomers were some who believed it was their duty to save the earth from Martians. In other words, professional astronomers had large issues of credibility that had to be counterpoised to the compelling issue of wanting to expand the knowledge base of observed celestial activity. In the end, it was thought that “kooks” would be sorted out through Web 2.0 participatory and corrective learning. The result has been a far greater knowledge, amassed in this participatory method, than anyone had ever dreamed possible, balanced by collective and professional procedures for sorting through the data for obviously wrong or misguided reporting.

If professional astronomers can adopt such a de-centered method for assembling information, certainly college and high school teachers can develop a pedagogical method also based on collective checking, inquisitive skepticism, and group assessment.

In a classroom governed my the community knowledge-making paradigm, students will be trained in skills rather than in knowledge. Students will have to know how to find information; they will have to know how to evaluate the reliability of that information; they will have to be able to understand the effects of bias and how to determine the bias of an information source. Then they will have to learn the skills of working in a knoweldge-making community: how to analyze and synthesize information to create knowledge; how to correct the information used my other knowledge makers and accept corrections from other knowledge makers; how to respectfully debate when there is disagreement in the community as to the reliability of information the communities analysis and synthesis. Finally, participants in the knowledge-making community will need the skills to publish their findings and conclusions in various media.
This post is an example of the very kind of learning that Mr. Norton is writing about. Net gen'ers will be manipulating pre-exisiting information to create and publish new understandings and new knowledge. In doing so, they will challenge our traditional paradigms about what it means to be a well-educated person.

Teaching in 2030

I can't stop wondering what a classroom will look like in 2030. When schools stop thinking about Googling facts and information as cheating, how will technology like smartphones and iPad's be used in classrooms? What will this mean for libraries and textbooks? What will quiz and test questions ask if memorizing facts and information is no longer a valued skill?

I keep thinking about the book Ender's Game. In this novel by Orson Scott Card, the title character is attending a military academy. What is occupying my thoughts right now is the electronic slate on which Ender completes his assignments and plays a strategic, fantasy game. The Ender slate is similar to Apple's new iPad, which has me thinking...

What if the entire top of a student's desk was a touch screen computer? The teacher could control the content that appears of the computer. Text, film, audible, graphs, images, pod casts and any other imaginable content could be displayed along with activities, questions, instructions, etc... Students could read text, or plug in their headphones and listen to the audio book format. Students can submit their responses, reactions, or ideas via a touch-screen key pad, stylus, or by talking into a microphone. Students could engage one another in discussions and have a record of their interaction and discussion via the microphone and you-talk-it-types software.

If iPad-like electronic slates are the desk of the future, would kids need to be sitting together geographically to engage in discussions or group talk? Would Skype-like networking software replace the need to be physically face-to-face? If teachers do not need to be physically in front of a class of children, then could they engage and mentor even more children than the 100-150 a typical high-school teacher does today? Would the class size limit be even more restrictive in a virtual classroom because students could engage more directly with the instructor by responding to e-mail questions or on-going conversations tracked with software like Google's Wave?

The above examples use only existing technology. Technology in 2030 may be remarkably advanced. When I was graduating high school 21 years ago, there was no such thing as Google or iPods; portable computers looked like suitcases and portable phones came in shoulder bags. The advances in technology may make the world of 2030 look very futuristic indeed.

Imagine what remote learning, communications will look like when you-talk-it-types turns into you-think-it-types. Imagine when Internet chat rooms and avatars meet 3D TV. Children of tomorrow might interact in holographic classroom. Students could participate in great moments in history in holographic lessons, becoming the lead character in a personal, Forrest-Gump-like interactive film.

When I talk to colleagues about how technology may revolutionize tomorrow's classroom, one of the most frequent responses is a negative, visceral one about the loss of so-called real-human contact. My adult friends find that the limitations of current technology to be problematic. For example, may of us may have experienced a miscommunication via e-mail caused by the absence of the facial expression, voice inflection, and opportunity for question and clarification that exist in a face-to-face conversation. While one might how voice and video conferencing may assuage these concerns, it is far more difficult to imagine that children and grandchildren of today’s high-school students may not share our concerns about the nuances of face-to-face contact.

In some ways 2030 is a far and distant world. Imagining the technological advances of computers, 3D TV and the possibility of a virtual learning environment can at times feel more like science fiction fantasy rather than a serious attempt to imagine the not-so-distant future. On the other hand, 2030 is not very far away. I’ve been teaching since 1996. In 2030, I will be in the 35th year of my teaching career and 58 years old. While that is near retirement by today’s standards, advances in medicine and reforms to social security may mean that I am still 5-15 years away from retirement by 2030. Teachers entering the profession today will be solid veterans halfway through their careers. Today’s high-school graduates will be attending parent-teacher conferences in the high schools and middle schools of 2030. In that sense, 2030 is just around the corner.