Category Archives: Pedagogy

More on my trip down the SBG road

I wrote earlier about my decision to go SBG, and my early observations of implementation. Well, at about the half-way mark through the year I compiled my thoughts about it, and put them into a video. So if you have a few minutes, let me walk you through my experience so far:

Is Physics a language class?

When I teach Physics, I like to focus heavily on the conceptual side, as well as the process of problem solving and how to think about problems in general, rather than just the mechanics of the math. After all, the math we do in Physics is typically a year or more behind what they are actually studying in Math class, so they should be pretty good at it. In other words, I like to get metacognitive about the subject.

Physics is not exactly about the real world. Physics is about studying mathematical representations (models) of reality, in hopes that those representations can be predictive. For the cognoscenti, real science hides in the places where the math does not predict what we see in the real world, but we rarely delve into those places in school. Instead, we focus on how the models do match and predict reality. In any event, we need to translate what we see around us into math in order to manipulate the model, and then translate it back from math to real world.

It is that translation piece that got me thinking about the title of this post. When we do physics, we are really “translating” from the language of the real world top the language of mathematics – a bit like translating a question from German to English, answering the question in English, and then translating it back – the grammar doesn’t always match, so we have to be judicious in how we translate. And when we study languages we learn to recognize the nuances of each, and the differences in how they work to express things. Likewise in Physics, we need to recognize how a mathematical representation is similar to, and how it differs from the real world.  There are of course other ways to represent reality – artistic, linguistic, and so on, as well as other analogies for translation (thinking gene expression here…), but I’m not sure they convey the same sense of how Physics operates.

Here’s the thing – though I have learned other languages, I have never taught other languages, so I don’t really have a sense of the metacognition of that process. I think it’s about time I explored that in order to develop a full toolkit to help my students understand more about the process of doing Physics.

 

We need more invisible refrigerators

This year I am taking part in an EdTech/21st century year-long PD program called Cohort21. We had our first face to face session last Saturday, and the morning discussion centred around the use of technology in the classroom. The following are some thoughts arising from that session:

During the morning discussion of technology in education at the first face to face session of Cohort 21 we discussed the idea that technology should be transparent, invisible, in the background supporting learning, rather than being the focus. Like a refrigerator – it does an important job, but we don’t focus on refrigerators when preparing dinner, we focus on the food. Since we don’t focus on the refrigerator, it is effectively invisible when cooking.

Digital technology, however, is not. While we really want it to be, we have to spend a fair bit of and energy getting the applications to do what we want, making sure the students know how to use them properly (and actually use them…), and adjusting our methods to fit the paradigm of the software. All of this prevents the software (educational and otherwise) from becoming invisible.

I spend a good deal of time checking out educational apps and software, hoping for new tools that can support my classroom without getting in the way. Most often I find parts of of each of them to be quite desirable, and then other parts that make it almost useless (think smartphone apps for marking MC quizzes, but don’t give any feedback to the students).

Evernote is one application that does an awful lot, and is very flexible for recording observations, note-taking, tracking progress, and really anything else you want to make note of. And it’s shareable. Google Apps is on it’s way, but not there yet (but if Evernote could save to Google Drive, now that would be something!). But I’m having trouble thinking of other software that might fit into this category.

Most Educational software requires us to deliver in a certain way, or assess in a certain way. What we really need in EdTech is more invisible refrigerators.

The straw that fixed the camel’s back – Moving to SBG

I am always on the lookout for ways to improve my courses. Recent(ish) innovations include flipped learning, layered curriculum, modelling, SBG, and on and on. I like them all – or rather, I like most of most of them, and parts of all of them. But inevitably there is something about them that either doesn’t fit, whether it’s with my subject, my teaching style, or the requirements of our Ontario curriculum, there always seems to be something.

But recently, while perusing again through resources on SBG (Standards Based Grading), I re-read this post by Kelly O’Shea. But this time, something clicked, and I realized how I could mesh SBG with the Ontario ministry requirements of assessment and evaluation, layer the content in a meaningful way, and have it all make sense. And It all works with how I like to do things, which is probably the most important thing.

So here’s what I’m doing:

I started by going through the list of ministry expectations for the course, and then through all of my tests and assignments, and figured out exactly what it is I want my students to know. The list came out at 82 things, which were further subdivided into categories of Knowledge, Inquiry, Communication and Application (it’s an Ontario thing…). I also identified which standards involved core knowledge and skills, and which were more advanced.

Every standard is graded on a 0-3 proficiency scale, and all standards are effectively weighted equally. The core skills, such as  I can draw and interpret d/t and v/t graphs in uniform motion, and I can identify/determine whether forces are balanced, will earn students a score up to B+ (we don’t officially have letter grades here, we have number levels, but they correlate: 1 is a D, 2 a C, 3 a B, 4 an A. You get the idea). Advanced skills add on top, bringing the mark up into A territory. Which means, technically, a student could get a B+ in the course without ever even attempting an advanced skill (but hey, if they are ninjas with the core skills, why not?). I have a few additional rules – mostly to force conversations of a student earns a 0 or 1 on a core standard, but you probably get the gist.

On any given assessment, I will typically have three or so questions for each standard (sometimes multiple standards per question), and will generate an aggregate grade of 0-3 (whole numbers only)  for each standard based on the results. The only way to get a 3 is to get 3’s on all questions addressing that standard. Two 3’s and a 2 is a 2 (since they have not fully mastered that standard). Errors on things that are not addressed by a standard in a question are given feedback, but not penalized. There are no overall grades for tests and assignments, only on standards.

Students will have regular opportunities to be re-assessed on standards.

I have only been using this method of assessment for a month now, and I have already noticed many  advantages. Because all standards are weighted equally, it forces me to create assessments that cover a balance of topics, as well as a balance of core and advanced level questions. Students and I know exactly where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and ask for specific assistance in order to achieve proficiency. And, frankly, as I start working on my first set of reports, It is ridiculously easy, as at a glance I can see a student’s progress through each standard.

I have to say, so far so good!

Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’

I am pleased to see this article in the Washington Post: Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’. Howard Gardner is the most prominent voice in the area of multiple intelligences, an idea that has been co-opted by proponents of learning styles, which I have already stated I don’t believe in. The article clarifies Gardner’s stand on what he means by multiple intelligences, namely that the brain functions as a set of connected but autonomous processors. Gardner clearly distances himself from (and actually chastises) those who misinterpret his work.

For students, que sera sera? Maybe.

I have long posited that the real success of education cannot be determined in the short run. How a student does on the next test is not really a measure of the effectiveness of teaching. We really need to look down the road at how students are faring a year, or two, or five later to get a real sense of  how what we have taught has been useful or effective.

A recent reunion, where I met students from as far back as 13 years, gave me a (admittedly somewhat uncontrolled and subjective) sample of how my students have done. And you know what? There is not really a strong correlation between how they did in my classes (or school in general) and how they did later. While many students who did well in school continued to do well in university and career, it is also the case that many who were “troublemakers” in high school went on to be very successful (some even becoming teachers!), while some who were excellent students in school went on to perfectly uneventful and mundane post-secondary study and careers.

Frankly, it looks like students will go on to do what they do, with or without us. While we may have some influence – a little inspiration, a little nudge, exposing them to things they might otherwise not have seen, I think it is naive to think that what we teach them (or try to) determines their future.

So how do I feel about this? Does this make me feel like what I do has no meaning or value? No. I think this means that I can help provide a foundation for the majority of my students – including some who may not actually think so at the moment. I can act as a role model, foster an interest in  (and understanding of) science, and help provide them with tools that they can use in later life. But it also means that if I decide to stray from a proscribed curriculum to allow them to pursue what might be construed as “peripheral” material, it probably won’t disadvantage them in the long run. Those who would be successful will still likely be successful, and those that wouldn’t be, well, just maybe I can help them  choose their own destiny, or point them in a way they hadn’t thought of before, and just maybe that can improve their chances of finding success.

The indirect lesson we mustn’t forget

I was at the Google Apps for Education Summit a few weeks ago. Lots and lots of great stuff, interesting talks, interesting discussion between talks. But there is one thing I learned that I really REALLY must not forget as I plan my courses for next year.

You see, the GAFE summit was held at a high school in Kitchener, and I spent two days sitting in chairs, at desks and in the auditorium. And dammit, it was uncomfortable. I mean ass-numbingly knee-bangingly miserable. And yet, when we see kids being fidgety in class, we often think it’s because they can’t sit still.

The old Golden Rule is do “unto others as you would have them do unto you”, and I suppose the flipside is also true – don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want done to you. I would rather not have to sit in a hard chair at a small desk all day. So I will try my best not to make my students suffer that fate either.

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.