Category Archives: Pop Culture

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.



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.


Praise and self-esteem

I have spoken before about some of the things I don’t believe. There are many trends and fads in education, and many seem self-evidently true – but as a scientist I know that what seems self-evident needs to be tested before becoming an accepted rule.

One of the biggest such fads is “self-esteem”. We are told that without self esteem, children will fail. It has been repeated so often that it has become part of the fabric of the education system in North America. It has changed policy, making it harder for students to fail (because that would hurt their self esteem, which would lead to, um, failure).

Part of the self-esteem picture is providing positive reinforcement, which usually comes in the form of praise. I mean, after all, who doesn’t get a little charge out of praise – or even flattery? It gives you that little rush of happiness, and that has to be good for self-esteem, right? And that has to be good for student success, right?

But that has always bothered me. Sure, I get that little rush when praised just like anyone else, but I always flt self-esteem came from accomplishment, not praise. Now a new study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology addresses the issue of praise, and concludes not only that some praise – that directed at the person (“You are very clever”) is detrimental, but also that process directed praise (“You worked hard”) is no better at fostering future success (or dealing with future failures) than no praise at all. In other words, one of the things that has been pushed in education for the last thirty years as being “self-evident” is virtually useless at best, and often detrimental.

What really bothers me is that, though I like to try to keep up with the research, most educators and policy makers do not. Decisions are based not on research, but popular belief and seeming-self-evident “truths”. And those of us who try to base our best practice on research are not lauded for doing so (which might feel good, but not actually help our self-esteem…) but criticized for not going along with the popular trends.


Look beyond the rhetoric

I am sure by now most educators reading this blog will have seen this cartoon:

I don’t actually know the origin of this frame, but it has been passed around a lot. The message is clear: one-size-fits-all testing is flawed, differentiation is important. While presumably intended as a critique of standardized testing, it has been spread wider, with resulting insinuations about classroom instruction as well. Today this cartoon was tagged onto the end of an email sent out to the staff, as I’m sure it has many times in many schools around the world. A colleague of mine – a veteran teacher teacher who has a knack for waving aside smoke and mirrors – sent a simple reply:

Perhaps they should not have all been registered in the course on tree climbing to begin with.

That one statement opens up a slew of issues, all of which require their own conversation around fairness, equality, homogenization vs streaming vs differentiation, the difference between primary and secondary education, who bears responsibility for ensuring students are in an appropriate program, and even the use of rhetorical devices in complex discussions of education as a whole.

I will not be elaborating further on this topic here, I have too much work to do. But feel free to talk amongst yourselves.

Losing the narrative

Please bear with me as I muse over these ideas on paper – well, digital paper. As i tell my students (or, as they might say, nag them), put ideas down to help you think them over, because you can only juggle so many ideas at once in your head.

And there I go again, providing back story…

Most of us in the teaching profession have commented, lamented, bragged, or at least observed that teaching and learning ain’t what it used to be, due to some combination of changes in students, their teachers, society, culture, and values. In particular, I am finding that over the last few years I am losing the narrative.

Have you noticed that when you study a complex subject in depth, that it seems to get easier the more you learn? At first glance this seems counter-intuitive – you might think that the more you learn the more you have to remember, making it harder. What is happening, however, is that we are completing a giant puzzle. At first, the pieces are separate, and make little sense. But the more pieces we have, the easier it is to see the picture, and everything starts to reinforce everything else. We begin to understand the system, rather than having to remember the pieces.

It has always been my stated goal to help students move toward understanding the system, rather than trying to remember the pieces, and so I try to provide as much context as possible, to weave a narrative around the whole on which the parts can be pinned. But I am finding it more and more difficult to transfer that narrative. Maybe it’s me, maybe the students, maybe the curriculum, but I think it is some combination of all three.

A few years ago a colleague from a different school took a sabbatical year, and as part of his research, he read the Campbell Biology textbook from cover to cover. He said the truly remarkable thing was that it read like a novel. It is a good text, but when read from start to finish the entire text is a narrative, with each new concept carefully pinned to the storyline. Meanwhile, I am finding the Science curriculum I am required to teach to be more and more characters, and not enough plot.

One contribution to the problem is the shift towards brevity. I am more of an old-school orator, and trying to weave a complex contextual framework in a soundbite world is a challenge. I struggle somewhat with trying to balance context and facts – there is really only time in a course to do one of them well. Experience tells me that context is harder for the students to learn, while facts are easy to dig up in the information age. But it is also less concrete, and harder for the students to see the relevance of. They see the facts and details as the things that should be “taught”, because that is what they are used to. And what their parents are used to, and what we are used to.

I find that while students today are capable of finding out information quickly, they develop the sense that any question has an answer than can be found quickly, and they are less likely to spend time digging and working through problems. As a result, they need more guided work time during class when I can help get them unstuck as they work through the more complex material. They are less likely to complete those tasks on their own at home. So while context an narrative is becoming more important to teach than ever, I have to chop my lessons down to “just the facts Ma’am” in order to maximize hands-on time.

Flipping the classroom (which I am experimenting with in my grade 9 astronomy unit) is one way to help deal with this issue, though so far my results have been mixed. Modelling is another approach that helps students build their own context as well as facts, but it requires considerable training to accomplish. Blended learning can provide a self-guided course with teacher supervision and support, but requires a certain maturity and self-motivation from the students to be effective.

I’m not sure what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. Certainly not a quick answer. But it is a problem worth spending time exploring. My students are worth it.

I have been assimilated

(…and no, that is not why I haven’t posted anything in a while)

I have been assimilated. I have become a cyborg.

Allow me to explain…

The term Cyborg is a contraction of cybernetic organism, and basically refers to an organism that has extended or enhanced abilities due to technology. Since I am an organism, if I enhance my abilities through technology, I become a cyborg. A few months ago, I purchased an iPhone…

It really didn’t take me long to get hooked. I use it frequently throughout the day to check weather reports, look up information, use maps, perform calculations, take and share pictures and video, check email, check twitter and facebook, browse my feed reader, check my bank balance, make shopping lists, and see when the next bus is arriving. I even occasionally make phone calls with it. And that’s just the personal use stuff. I also use it in class to record events, upload snippets to Evernote, set timers, operate my computer remotely, collect data, and a host of other uses, all conveniently at my fingertips without having to sit down at a conventional computer keyboard. My ability to retrieve information, or to catalog, or record and share information has increased substantially and dramatically thanks to this technology, so I am being quite serious when I say that I have become a cyborg.

This transition also gives me a substantial insight into the perspective of my students. We talk about the disconnect between a student’s outside world and that of the classroom, but until I became a cyborg it was an academic point. Now I better understand, first hand, the feeling of accessibility smart phones provide, and the sense of disorientation when that access is removed – and I have only had my iPhone for three months! For my students who have been using this technology for a significant fraction of their lifetimes, the separation anxiety is undoubtedly much stronger. So when we instate rules banning smart phones in class we are not just hobbling our students, we are then increasing their anxiety by threatening them with punishment (or worse – confiscation!) if they violate those rules.  It really must seem arbitrary and barbaric.

Like the fictional characters Hugh and 7 of 9 on Star Trek, I am quite capable of leading a disconnected life. There are times when it is necessary, and times when it is just much better to do so. I think that is the message that needs to be relayed. Without being heavy-handed, students should be encouraged periodically to perform mental and hands-on tasks without the use of technology, to help them recognize that they can function without it, so it is less stressful when they are required to do so.

We are only two years in to the second decade of this century. The degree of integration of technology into our lives with only increase, and it will do so rapidly and exponentially. And while the technology can be a temptation and a distraction, it won’t be long until K-12 education is the only place that technology is disallowed. If education has not caught up with the times by then it really will be absurd.



Even though I am not in the US, SOPA/PIPA will have an international impact. So today I post this video. If you are in the US, please contact your elected representatives and and let them know the negative impact it will have.

Welcome to the 21st Century

I have heard people say that hey would love to have lived in the renaissance, when all that new knowledge was being discovered, that it must have been such an interesting time. Perhaps. But please – this is the 21st Century, folks!

How many of you remember this from the movie Wayne’s World:

OK… First I’ll access the secret military spy satelite that is in geosynchronous orbit over the midwest. Then I’ll ID the limo by the vanity plate “MR. BIGGG” and get his approximate position. Then I’ll reposition the transmission dish on the remote truck to 17.32 degrees east, hit WESTAR 4 over the Atlantic, bounce the signal back into the aerosphere up to COMSAT 6, beam it back to SATCOM 2 transmitter number 137 and down on the dish on the back of Mr. Big’s limo… It’s almost too easy.

That was funny in 1992. But it is now two decades later, and what was amusing for its implausibility then has become the norm now. For example, I don’t have a thermometer at my house. Instead, I have a computer in my pocket (masquerading as a phone) that uses satellite data to locate itself, then accesses the internet wirelessly to look up the temperature (and weather for the next few days) in my location, all displayed on a high resolution hand-held screen. Why? Because it is easier than buying a thermometer!

Yes there are political and financial concerns (and, hey, there were none of those in the renaissance, right?). But the rate of technology is advancing so fast, we casually perform tasks that would have seemed magic a scant decade ago.

I, for one, am very happy to be living in this century.

More on non-drooling autotrophs

My earlier post “Autotrophs don’t actually drool“, which references the Big Bang Theory song, is one that gets some of the most hits on this site. Go figure. Apparently lots of people are doing searches for drooling autotrophs. But since that post doesn’t actually explain what autotrophs are, I think those people are going away disappointed. So here’s the skinny:

“Troph” refers to eating. Autotrophs produce their own food (through photosynthesis or chemosynthesis), while heterotrophs consume other things (herbivores, carnivores, detritivores, decomposers). Drooling involves a mouth. Autotrophs, since they produce their own food, don’t have mouths, and don’t drool. (And to pre-empt those who would trot out Euglena as both an autotroph and a heterotroph, and therefore does eat, I will point out that it does so through phagocytosis. It doesn’t have a mouth.)