Category Archives: Authenticity

A slightly different take on Ahmed Mohamed

As you have probably heard, 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed was taken away from school on Monday, in handcuffs, for bringing a homemade clock to school.

In the bright distant hindsight of a social media shitstorm, the teachers, the principal, the police, and everyone were to blame for misunderstanding (at best) or racial profiling and racism (at worst), and the claims of officials, as reported by the Washington Post, are seen as lame:

School officials, however, insist that their staff and police acted appropriately in investigating the device as a potential threat.

“The information that has been made public to this point has been very unbalanced,” Lesley Weaver, a spokeswoman for Irving Independent School District, said at a Wednesday news conference. “We always ask our students and staff to immediately report if they observe any suspicious items or if they observe any suspicious behavior.

Reviewing the sequence of events, roughly

  1. Ahmed builds a clock to show his teachers and friends the hobby he is proud of.
  2. He brings the clock to school, and shows his first teacher, in engineering class (wait, they have engineering class in ninth grade? Wish I had that!)
  3. the teacher reportedly said something like “That’s really nice, I would advise you not to show any other teachers.”
  4. Ahmed carries it around, and an alarm goes off in English class. The English teacher thinks the clock looks suspicious.
  5. Ahmed gets questioned by the school authorities, then the police, and gets taken away.

So what went wrong, and how did this young man’s awesome hobby turn out so badly for him that day?

As much as I would like to chastise the English teacher and principal, I think they probably had little choice. It would not surprise me if it were in fact law that anything suspicious must be reported, the same way we are required to report suspected abuse to children’s aid immediately. So while they may have been ignorant and fearful, it may have made no difference – if someone thought the device looked suspicious, they may have had an obligation to call the police.

Here’s the clock, by the way. Innocuous enough to anyone who has the slightest understanding of electronics. Scary as hell to anyone who doesn’t but has watched too many spy movies.

So that really leaves Ahmed himself, the Engineering teacher, and the police.

Ahmed is a 14 year old with complete first hand knowledge of the workings of his clock (and no first hand knowledge of what a bomb looks like), a project he was proud of. So while some might say he should have known it looked like a bomb, I think that in itself ascribes lost innocence to the boy. I think he can safely be exonerated, though the harsh reality has made itself known to him, and I suspect he will be overly cautious in the future. Sadly.

The Engineering teacher apparently recognized it for what it was, and also recognized that other teachers may not. Since that teacher did not report the clock as suspicious, he clearly knew it was safe, but did warn Ahmed that others might find it suspicious. But this is where, as a teacher, I find there was a missed opportunity. If he knew it might be considered suspicious, and knew that suspicious objects could get Ahmed in trouble, he could have done something about it. Something such as “Hey, you know what? this case makes it look sinister to people who don’t know about this stuff. Why don’t you let me look after it for now so it doesn’t cause any trouble, and you can pick it up after school.” Or even better: “”Hey, you know what? this case makes it look sinister to people who don’t know about this stuff. Why don’t you let me look after it for now and later we can make a cooler case for it later on.”

That leaves the police. Were any of the police members of the bomb squad? Did any of them know what a bomb actually looks like, or have any training in electronics? Probably not. So they arrive to find a device that someone was suspicious of, and they did what they do (when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail), which is apply pressure to “suspects” to try to elicit a confession. They overstepped their authority when they failed to let him call his father, unless they too are under very specific guidelines to treat any “perceived terrorist threat” with patriot act -like authority.

So it is really hard to lay heavy blame in any one place. The first teacher could have been more helpful, and the police could have been less heavy handed (much, much less). The principal could have called the father, and could have been more supportive. Racism, whether overt or subconscious, most likely played a role, and that is in part (or largely) due to the relentless news coverage of “The War on Terror” and the resulting heightened fear.

The whole sequence was a tragedy of errors, and could (should) have been mitigated or stopped at many points by someone doing more than “just following orders”, but sadly was not.

I just hope that Ahmed continues to follow his dreams, and make fabulous things. I hope more people become aware that kids can make fabulous things that aren’t scary, and that this brings a little more awareness of issues of racial profiling and police behaviour, particularly towards children in our schools.

You go Ahmed! Keep making cool stuff!




There is an entrenched, legislated fear response, fueled by constant reminders of “War on Terror” and “See something, say something”. At every level the guidelines are essentially, “if you see something suspicious, report it to your superior”. So the slightest little suspicion automatically gets passed up the line, up the line up the line again until the police are called, and since it is a “suspicion of terrorism” the police are already on a heightened alertness, and operating under an assumption that they are being called because of a legitimate threat.

Checks and balances people, we need checks and balances.



A little Google docs win – almost

Today I played the Deer Game with my grade nines to illustrate population dynamics, limiting factors and carrying capacity. We usually iterate a dozen or so times, counting and recording the dear population on each turn, and then enter the results on a spreadsheet and graph it when we get back to the classroom.

Well, this year I did something a little different. I created a Google sheet, and created a chart based on a set of (presently empty) cells. I left this display up in the classroom when we went outside. During the game, I recorded the results each round on my phone, in the same spreadsheet. So when we wrapped up and went back to class the graph was already waiting for us on the screen. As a bonus, we ran this activity with two classes combined, and both classes could see the same data.

This was a great little timesaver, and I would rave about it, except for one little thing – scatter plots. The scatter plots in Google sheets do not show connecting lines or curves, just the scatter points. For this activity a line graph is sufficient, because we are iterating equal intervals, but uncovering a glaring hole in the capabilities of Google sheets slightly tarnished my esteem for this set of tools.

How do you science?

Yesterday in class one of my students asked “am I sciencing right?”

After giving him a high five for cleverness, I got to thinking more seriously about that question. In courses like Drama, Art, Music, and Physical Education the students spend a minimal amount of time learning theory, and maximal time practising it. Doing it.

In Science, at least in the introductory courses, there seems to be so much emphasis on basic facts that there is little time left to do science, or as my student would to science. Now, admittedly, there is several centuries worth of background to what goes on in our daily lives. Even up through much of my undergrad studies my courses were pumping me full of background knowledge, with little emphasis on doing science. It wasn’t until my undergraduate thesis and grad school that I got to actually science.

Science is often touted as a subject that requires inquiry, but most science courses actually don’t. Researching facts is an important aspect of science, but it is the preliminary legwork before the actual science begins. When we actually science, we are actively investigating and experimenting, troubleshooting, problem solving, analyzing, and synthesizing. Using our brains, designing, building, testing.

I realize there are some programs, such as the modelling method, that allow (or require!) students to science in high school, but availability and training for these types of programs is not (yet) widespread. I think it’s time to spread the science. If you implement a course, particularly an introductory science course at any level, that is built on students actively doing science, I would like to hear from you. How do you science?


How do you spell conundrum?

Previously I have written about how textbooks get it backwards, authenticity, using challenge, and all kinds of posts on pedagogy, ed tech, and “21st Century learning” (a phrase I am growing tired of, because we are well into the 2nd decade of the century…). I have also written about various challenges dealing with recent cohorts of students, and how the trend for general disengagement from learning in even a progressive classroom seems to be on the rise. It really is time for wholesale change.

I have experimented with flipping my classroom, with mixed success. While many students appreciate it, I still have students who just don’t do the preparation, and so they are unable to participate meaningfully in the activities that are based on the videos. So my plan is to build a hybrid/blended course with all of the content laid out online, so that all students can stay caught up, even if they are away at sports, or ill, or I am absent.  Here is what I am thinking:

  1. Build the course online, in Google sites, with plenty of embeded videos (mine and others) and interactives, questionnaires, wiki components etc.
  2. Make use of Google groups and/or Google+ for asynchronous discussion, backchannel, etc.
  3. Have students do ALL their classwork in  drive, shared with me, so that I can access and comment at any time.

 Now, the items above are not really new. Others have been doing things like this for years, and I have used pieces of it myself, just not integrated them all, whole-hog. But here’s what else I would like to do:

  1. Incorporate the concept of 20% time.

I spoke with some of my students the other day about the idea of spending every Friday class (we have classes every other day, so we have Friday classes every other work. But it is still one class in five) on a project of their choosing. While intrigued with the idea, they suggested that it would be difficult to implement meaningfully, because, as they put it, “We’d just play Tetris”. So I thought about it some more, and hat the following train of thought. In order to implement 20% time, I need to streamline the efficiency of the course, so we can address the essentials in 20% less time. Fine. So, what would happen if I were to streamline the course, and use the Friday classes not for projects, but for homework? If content delivery can be compressed enough for 20% time, it could certainly be compressed so that there is no need for homework. So what about the 20% time? Well, what if students were required to spend, say, one hour a week outside school time working on a project of their choosing, but with no other required homework? In other words,

  1. Flipped 20% time.  

This, I think, might work. With students journalling their progress there would be accountability, and ideally it should be something that is meaningful enough to them that there would be intrinsic engagement.

Now, here is the conundrum part. In order to pull this off, I have to compress a course that, historically, has typically been rushed as it is down into 80% or less of it’s former time allotment. Looking where the time goes now, I can see that  some time is spent in delivering factual content, some in what to do with that factual content, and some in providing context for both. So where to trim the budget?

In terms of factual content, whether I give it to them, or they look it up themselves, time is required. In grades 9 and 10 the curriculum is particularly fact heavy. I can carefully trim the list of things they absolutely have to know, but it is hard to trim the time significantly. As for the doing part – if anything I would like to increase the amount of time on using the knowledge learned, so not much room for cutting there. So that leaves time spent contextualizing, and the heart of the conundrum.

We know as educators that lists of facts just don’t stick. They are meaningless words. New knowledge requires meaningful context for it to be effectively retained, and that requires providing students with both context in which to place the knowledge, and context for the students to relate to. My informal, subjective observations seem to indicate that it is this contextualizing that takes up a significant portion of the time, and so this is the only thing that can be trimmed significantly. And yet, it is arguably the most important use of time. So what to do? How about something like

  1. Layered context

If the course material is provided online, as opposed to in a textbook, it can be presented with basic context, but with links to additional background information, examples, videos, diagrams, applications and so on, so that those students who need the extra context have ready access to a veritable buffet of all the information they need, while those who get it quickly do not have to slog through unnecessary material. And if those who need more context are able to turn to those who “get it” for help, so much the better.

I still have a lot to wrap my brain around, and I would love to hear from anyone who has tried (successfully or otherwise) to implement any of this.

Random thoughts on things to implement in my class

There are lots of strategies I would like to try in my classroom, but I’m not always sure how they would work. But here are a few of the ideas I have been tossing around, in no particular order:

  • Make MUCH more use of google tools – I picked up a lot of great ideas at the GAFE summit in April, and I’m dying to put them to practical use. Pages, shared resources, research tools built in, no losing documents.
  • 20% time – based on the Google model, where employees spend 20% of their time on a project of their choice.
  • On the Fly response forms – using a generic response form and creating questions each day to go with the questions, and/or using it as an exit ticket
  • more portfolio, journaling, less testing – build emphasis on ongoing learning, break the dependency on cramming and memorization
  • “tests” as formative – Despite making practice tests available, I find students rarely make good use of them, and then doing poorly on a test comes as a complete surprise. I have considered giving tests, just as they are, as a means of  providing feedback on what students still ned to know before they complete their work on the unit – whatever that might be.
  • “streamed” course for layering/differentiation – allow students more choice in how they complete each unit. Offer perhaps three “pathways” through a unit, from more traditional reading/lecture/worksheet, to grad-school like complete independent research, with a kind of hybrid/pbl in between.
  • change the way I assess. I need to a) make students more independent and responsible for their own learning, b) make it more meaningful, ans c) make it less onerous for me.
  • flipped classroom/blended learning – get more videos up, migrate my notes online, build the course in google sites as a sort of online textbook, complete with embedded docs for students to contribute like a wiki
  • Project/inquiry based learning. I really like the concept of the modelling method. The problem is that much of the material in grades 9 and 10 is purely factual, which leaves little room for inquiry.
  • introduce students to formal logic early. Hey, it’s science. Causation vs correlation is something science students really need to know.
  • make simple interactives. Flash, Construct 2, whatever. But something that can be embedded.
  • 3 before me – help to emphasize that I may be AN expert but not THE expert, and help break their dependence on me as the sole source of knowledge. They have to consult three other sources (classmates, textbook, internet, for example) before they ask me.
  • provide a road map of the course, that students must fill out as they go, with links to their work – students often ask what we did last class, or what we are doing next class. If i provide them with a syllabus/sequence on google drive, they can make a copy, and turn each heading into a link to their own work as we go along.
  • change the way I assess – Definitely.
  • “do I get it” self-assessment checkpoints
  • Incorporate Karplus learning cycle – important, particularly in science, but tricky to make relevant when the information is predominantly fact-based.
  • have students measure and graph everything they possibly can – It’s science. Measuring and graphing are what we do.
  • Maker Spaces – I love the idea of a maker space classroom. Making something is an incredible exercise in problem solving in the real world, and students don’t get nearly enough of it.
  • Change the way I assess. ‘Nuff said.

I don’t yet know how I can implement any of this properly, and implementing all of it is nigh impossible. But I know I have to make changes, and starting with a list of possibilities seems like as good a place as any.


That moment when…

We live in a pretty safe world. Or at least, where I am it is pretty safe. Despite the excessive portrayal of violence in the news, the chances of injury from either accident or crime has been on the decline for some time. Parents may become (needlessly?) overprotective, and students can develop a sense of complacent protection. That is, if there is possible danger, that Someone is Taking Care of It.

So yesterday we were talking about the flotsam and jetsam of the solar system – comets, asteroids, meteors etc, and we were discussing the recent bolide over Siberia, the close approach of 2012DA14 on the same day, and the Tunguska event of 1908 – when one of the students asked “So what do they do when they see that one of these is going to hit Earth?”

“Who is ‘they‘?”

“You know, astronomers and NASA and stuff”

“Well, there isn’t really a ‘they’. To look for these requires funding, and with tight budgets, few government bodies want to fund projects that do not have foreseeable, immediate benefits. So there aren’t many people looking.”

“Ya, but, if they do find one, what do they do? Like, just…” I think he was waiting for me to finish his sentence. Which I didn’t. “Just… just…”

“Crash a nuke into it?” another student suggested helpfully.

At this point I had to make their world a little bit less safe, and I explained that, at present, there is nothing we can do. Only if a potential impact is discovered years in advance is there any chance of altering the course of even a small asteroid, and even that requires technology we don’t actually possess. Not that it isn’t theoretically possible, but it would require a very rapid design and construction, and it could only be launched within a narrow window of opportunity. It’s not the movies, and it’s not off-the-shelf parts. In other words, at present, there is nothing we could do.

The take away message of the discussion was there is still plenty of opportunity for Science to save the world, and a need for people to step up and make it happen. Though maybe not a worldview change for most students, it was a chip in the safe bubble they see of the world, and a real, practical. and important application of what we have been learning.

And that’s all I can ask for.

How you do math is, well, not how you do math

Math is an important tool in life, but the mechanics of math, the way it is often taught, is not actually the way it is typically applied. Probably because our brains aren’t wired like computers.

Here’s an example – you are the cashier at a grocery store. A customer buys $43.37 worth of groceries, and hands you a $50 dollar bill. What do you give them in change?

In math, you would find the difference, $50 – $43.37 = $6.63, then count the change out as $5, $1, 2 quarters, a dime and three pennies.

A real cashier, however, counts up: from $43.37, three pennies makes .40, a dime and 2 quarters makes $44, then $1 and $5 make $50. They don’t need to know the total change amount is $6.63, because the goal is to hand over change, not count it.

Likewise, when solving division problems we don’t tend to do division in our head, we do multiplication. When asked how many nickels make up 45 cents, we don’t think 45/5 = 9. We think what times 5 = 45? It seems that we are programmed to think forward, and that thinking backwards is really difficult to do, and when we do think backwards, we are actually thinking forward in a series of backward steps (like the lagging strand of DNA, if I may be so nerdy).

I think this is really important to recognize. In an earlier post on my approach to problem solving, I talked about the necessity of working backwards from the answer to ensure you know where you are going, and that experienced problem solvers do this without even thinking about it. So when I teach problem solving, I not only try to model this as explicitly as possible for my students, but I also teach the metacognitive side – to get the students thinking about their own thinking process when problem solving. To expose the man behind the curtain, as it were.

Certainly to be good in science one has to have a handle on evidence-based problem solving, both inductive and deductive. I feel that teaching metacognition is a way to help students develop those skills. It also helps me fathom the workings of the teenage brain.


Shouldn’t it be blue?

I love how people think, and I love teachable moments.

We were using extracted red cabbage juice as a pH indicator today, and a student came to ask what he should do if he made a mistake. I asked what had gone wrong, and he said “Something happened with our strong base sample. It’s yellowy green, but it should be dark blue”.

Since this was the part of the lab where we were observing what the colours were, I asked him why he thought it should be dark blue. His reasoning went like this: neutral is purple, mild acid (pH=3) was light pink, strong acid (pH=1) was red. Mild base (pH=9) was blue, and therefore, strong base should be dark blue. Rather than simply correct his misconception (which was, after all, a hypothesis based on extrapolation), I simply had him take another sample.

His result? Yellow green. He faced a pre-conception head on, verified for himself his results, learned that double checking results is valid, and that things can sometimes – but not always – be extrapolated. Lots of learning from one little transaction. Yay science!

Alright, GO!

My grade 9’s are doing ecology first this year, and like last year, I kept the number of teacher-led lessons down to a minimum. But this year, instead of everyone working with invasive species, they are allowed to choose their own project (or projects, the number is unimportant) as long as it address the effects of human activity on ecosystems (one or many), water, and soil, and it must include one original hands-on investigation.

Since the investigation part seemed to be the part that was throwing them, the other day I told them that by the end of the 80 minute period they had to submit a description of what, exactly, they intended to do as an investigation, where and when they would perform it, and what specifically, they would be looking for (qualitatively or quantitatively).

I then told them we had a set of microscopes, dishes, jars, pond water, random soil samples from around the school, and a few litres of simulated acid rain. And then I said “alright, GO!”

I was pleasantly surprised by the inquisitive chaos that ensued, and by the end of the class I had detailed descriptions of most of the investigations, as well as at least a dozen experiments actually under way.

It was a frenetic, chaotic, inquisitive class. As a science teacher, I couldn’t have been happier!

Don’t impose yesterday’s standards on tomorrow’s children.

Do you ever get those moments when something pops into your head that is just so intuitively obvious you wonder why you never considered it before?

I was thinking about the generational differences between students – that is, how students and learning today differ from when I was growing up, and how it differed for my generation from my parents’, and so on. I was thinking about this because once again I was chatting with a parent who was of the opinion that “what was good for me in school should be good for my kids”.

I started thinking about the differences between today’s students and students from when I was growing up, namely ready access to information, an expectation of instant answers, and easily available on-demand stimulation in the form of videos, movies and video games. And all of this is accepted as perfectly normal. And then I thought about why these wonders are readily available to today’s sudents, and I realized, duh, it’s because we gave it to them.

So now we have people from my generation suggesting today’s students should learn like they did, because it was good enough for them. We should take away their digital stimulants and cheating lookup tools and make them sit down and learn from books. But it was us, my generation, that gave them those tools. So really, how dare we. How dare we provide these wonders and then yank them away and insist they not be used.

It is valid to argue that students should know how to work without them. Students should know how best to tackle the world with whatever tools they have at hand. Personally, I think everyone should know wilderness survival skills too, but that doesn’t mean students should be deprived of all tools all the time. After all, when do we work without them? Think about it – we work with far more technology now than we ever had at our disposal three decades ago. Today’s students will have tools in five years that we can’t even dream of. So to suggest that students need to always function without digital tools because “they won’t always have them” is absurd.

How about instead we teach them how to use those tools properly. Or better yet, stop imposing our outdated opinions of how a completely new generation should learn, and let them learn how they learn best.