Tag Archives: critical thinking

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.


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!

little insights

I am always on the lookout for little insights into how students think, and this is an example of how students can perceive the answer on paper to be the end goal, rather than learning. We are working on Astronomy with my grade 9’s, and they were answering some questions. The first question was:

What is an Astronomical Unit? What is it in km?

They correctly put that it is the distance from the Earth to the sun, approximately 150,000,000 km. The third question was:

Space probes can travel at about 30,000 km/h. About how long would it take to fly directly from the Earth to the sun?

The response? “How are we supposed to know how far away the sun is?”

One advantage I am finding with flipping the classroom is that these things arise when I am around to help…

Eighty minutes well spent

Eric Mazur gives a terrific, evidence based explanation of what is wrong with lecturing as a primary source of knowledge transfer, and what to do about it. I really like his explanation, about 51 minutes in, that the better we understand the material, the harder it is for us to teach, because we become more removed from what it was like to learn it the first time.

Bingo! From academic to authentic

This year, for the ecology unit in grade 9 Science I decided to focus on invasive species. The Ministry of Natural Resources and other non-government organizations have been putting out plenty of information on invasive plants and animals in the province, and I decided it was time to look at the real thing, rather than paper case-studies. After a period of research on what an invasive species is, and what is invasive locally, we went down into the valley next to the school to see what we could find. We found some Norway maples, but mostly buckthorn and dog strangling vine – everywhere.

While some students dutifully noted the extent of infestation on their maps, it wasn’t until the fourth group I took out that one of the girls piped up with “Why doesn’t somebody DO something about all this?”


With that simple question, the concept of invasive species switched from an academic one to an authentic one. We will now spend the next few weeks doing something about it.

I love it when that happens.


image from toronto.ca


On inquiry, pseudo-discovery and Socrates as a canine

I am assured that, even though the migration issue has STILL not been resolved, I can continue to post without worrying about losing anything. Just in case, I am keeping a backup…

At the end of the school year we had a PD session on inquiry based learning. This presentation (a 40 minute PowerPoint, by the way) was a reasonable overview, but covered little in the way of new ground. It described the idea of inquiry based learning from Socrates to the present. When I recently looked back at some of my notes, I found that for that session I had written only one thing:

Socrates = Border collie

Think about that for a minute.

Socratic questioning is a method of forcing the student to think through a problem, and can be a powerful tool. But it is really intended to lead the student to a specific outcome. It also establishes a hierarchy – the teacher who does the questioning, and the student who is forced to think towards a conclusion that is known to the teacher. In other words, it is shepherding, hence the canine analogy.

This shepherding process is not restricted to Socrates. I have seen many instances and examples of so-called “inquiry learning” that involve a specific desired outcome known in advance to the teacher, which requires periodic* intervention to ensure the student is on the right track. We might add this to the pseudo-ed lexicon and call it “pseudo-discovery”. It is not real discovery, not real inquiry, just following signposts.

True inquiry or discovery-based learning involves the student asking the questions, and following where those questions lead, while the teacher’s role is to provide the tools and guidance for how students can accomplish their goals, rather than what they should be accomplishing.

While true discovery learning can be powerful, it can also be tremendously time consuming, and difficult to implement if there are many specific curricular requirements that must be met. But when planning, be sure to avoid pseudo-discovery. Even the students who may struggle in a science course are smart enough to know they are being led, and thus need not put forth the effort on their own, and also know that the teacher is holding out on them – that she/he is withholding information rather than just telling them, which can weaken trust, and grow resentment.

So where am I going with this?

I’m not entirely sure, except to say that not everything is what it claims to be, and we have to stand back and think of all the angles and possible consequences before jumping in to something because someone said it was a good idea. I teach Science. Science is an inquiry and discovery process, so it makes sense that teaching science through inquiry and discovery would be a good idea. But like all things that seem like a good idea, further analysis is required.


*I used periodic in the lay sense, as in from time to time, not the scientific sense of regular intervals. I apologize in advance to anyone more pedantic than I who might object to this usage.


Using the Sloan SkyServer

In Grade 9 Science, we are currently doing the Astronomy unit. Today we were looking at the shapes of galaxies, and a variety of deep sky objects one can see with even a modest telescope. Instead of just rambling off a list of objects, I did a quick introduction to the different types of objects, and then divided them up into groups and set them on a scavenger hunt using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey data (http://skyserver.sdss3.org/dr8/en/proj/basic/scavenger/). This gave students an opportunity to explore real imaging data for specific types of objects.In other words, they had to observe, and think, while hunting for really cool stuff.

The best part of an activity like this is when students find something really great, and the gasps and squeels of joy spread through the class. Like when one student found NGC4030, a bright face-on spiral:

And then another found NGC4437, a grand, edge-on spiral:

For these students, they really felt the thrill of discovery, and that thrill can be contagious.

It was not a perfect class though. We had some technical issues that slowed us down – connection problems that prevented some students from accessing the site properly – and some students who were not engaged, despite the utter coolness of it. But that is another story for another entry; today’s post is about the awesomeness of hands-on learning with real data.


Things I don’t Believe

The definition of belief, if I may borrow from dictionary.com, is

an opinion or conviction, confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.

Belief is part of human nature. We hold all kinds of beliefs, from the spiritual to the mundane. But as a scientist, I am aware that we cannot, as it were, ignore the man behind the curtain. Certainties, particularly absolute certainties, merit further examination. And many of the things that we hold as true and even self-evident in education are based on studies that in other fields might only be classified as “interesting” or “preliminary”. Of course, since these things are believed to be true, they are unassailable. Some might find that questioning these things is tantamount to heresy. So let me go over a few of these beliefs, so that you can know that you are not alone if you don’t believe either:

Multiple intelligences

This is Gardner’s conjecture that there are eight, and possibly more, distinct intelligences. Namely: Spatial, Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalistic. Admittedly, this idea strikes a chord – we can probably all think of people we know who are math geniuses, but interpersonal incompetents, or musical geniuses who trip over their own feet. But do talents, skills, and abilities necessarily mean the same thing as intelligence? There really is no evidence or reason for re-defining intelligence in this way, other than the feel-good sense that everyone is good at something. [update – following this article in the Washington Post, I now see that Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences is NOT what is often described in educational literature. So I can accept Gardner’s model, and reject the edubabble interpretation of it, as does Gardner himself]

Which brings my next non-belief:

Everyone is good at something

We as human beings are a vastly diverse bunch. Some of us are exceptionally good at many things, some exceptionally good at one or two related things, and some of us are really not terribly good at much at all. It feels good to think and say that everyone has a talent, something they can excel at, but that simply doesn’t fly. Everyone has strengths – I’ll buy that. But a strength means only that the skill or ability is stronger relative to the person’s other abilities. Frankly, sometimes it seems to me that claiming everyone has a talent is just self-reassurance, granting others an as yet unidentified skill to feel less “guilty” at being more capable, rather than accepting people for who they are, not for who they might be.

Anyone can be anything they want

This is mostly an echo of the previous point, but I also want to relay something Sir Ken Robinson discussed in The Element. He mentioned talking with a professional musician, a keyboard player, and saying that he would love to play the keyboard that well. To which the musician replied, “No, you just love the idea of playing keyboards. If you’d really love to play them, you’d be doing it.” Doing something well requires hard work, dedication, and passion. Just wanting it isn’t enough. And rather than facilitating and perpetuating the idea that anyone can be anything they want (when what they say they want might just be a passing whim), I think we need to be able to have serious discussions with children, students, young adults, and their parents about their strengths and interests, and help them find what they are really passionate about.

Learning styles

This ties back to Multiple Intelligences. The idea is that there are multiple modalities of learning – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and that matching the instructional modality to the student’s modality will maximize student learning. The premise is almost certainly correct, but the conclusion is based on nothing. Many educators believe the idea of learning styles implicitly, and yet a simple scan of Wikipedia shows that most actual studies reveal no benefit from matching teaching styles to learning styles. There is, however, benefit in matching the teaching style to the modality of the subject matter – believe me, it is much easier to learn anatomy with a visual atlas, rather than a wordy textbook. I am reminded of the quote (though the origin of the quote is in dispute): “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”


Small Group Cooperative Learning. Remember that? There are dozens of educational formats that have been touted as the “best” way to learn. From what I can tell, they all seem to have a few simple things in common: very specific structure, a clear set of rules, and scads of time spent preparing the lessons (often participants in the investigation are given release time to develop the experimental material). Maybe what we need is not more fads, but more prep time for teachers.

Brain-based learning

It drives me nuts every time I hear that. I mean, as opposed to what, spleen-based learning? Calling something “brain-based” gives an idea some cred, as if there is genuine research behind it, when often it is sketchy edubable conclusions drawn from the legitimate research of others. My students have figured this out too – by calling anything “quantum” it makes it automatically sound sciency.

Engagement can always overcome distraction

I teach high school. My students, for the most part, are terrific, well intentioned, hard-working, motivated, charming young men and women. But there is so much more going on in their lives that is so much more attractive than much of the curriculum, that no matter how much of a dog-and-pony show I put on, there will always be distractions – boyfriends, girlfriends, new bands, new videos, new games, new gadgets, who’s having a party on Friday night, what’s for lunch, what’s that squirrel doing… There is no way to guarantee 100% engagement, and those that expect it of themselves or others are being unrealistic. Enough engagement to keep most of the class mostly on task most of the time is about the best most of us can hope for.

The “right” way to teach

If there was one, we’d have robots to do it. Teaching is an art, not a formula.


One of my hobbies is astrophotography. The image on the banner above is one of mine. One of the ways to reduce the noise in the image is to average multiple images. For that, averaging is great. But that is multiple samples of the same thing at the same time. A student changes over time, as does the subject matter. Using an average to determine a student’s achievement level combines completely different things from different times. Like me “averaging” an image of the Andromeda galaxy and the Hercules Globular Cluster. Not a useful exercise.

Gender differences

Much has been made of this – and yet it seems that the most stringent, controlled research concludes that there are no real genetic gender-specific behavioural differences. Sure, there are plenty of physical and physiological differences, but everything we see behaviourally as gender difference is pretty much societally established. So maybe they do behave differently, but that behavior is not intrinsic, and should not be treated as such.


I’m a nerd. I love technology. But the mere presence of technology in a classroom does not suddenly make everything perfect. Technology is a medium to accomplish a task, and it’s use in the classroom requires substantial training in order to be effective. Many years ago I was the Network Admin (and the only computer literate staff member) of a small private school. When I arrived I was told with some pride that the school had allocated $80,000 for the purchase of computers, a server, and network hardware. When I asked about the software budget, I was greeted with a blank stare.


People who promote the fads listed here. Oh, they exist. I just don’t think they are actual experts.

“Merit” pay

C’mon folks, who wouldn’t like a few extra dollars? But really, teachers rarely go into teaching for the money. If you want to reward teachers, give them a happy, healthy, helpful, supportive environment in which to work, without the stress of feeling like frontline soldiers in the war on ignorance. Forget merit pay, all studies have shown is that merit pay decreases creativity. No, try just being nice for a change.

Everything has to be applicanle to the real world

I hear this one often. Make it relevant, make it meaningful, show students what they can do with it, how they can apply it. Well, some foundational information must be learned that may have no immediate use. It is part of the puzzle, but a necessary part. And some knowledge, particularly in senior courses, may be beautiful because it is theoretical, and as yet have no practical purpose. But then, much of pure research in the Sciences is not about the practical use, but about learning new things and expanding our understanding of the universe. If you don’t want to learn those things, don’t take those courses (see anyone can be anything they want, above).

I think that’s it for now. It’s late, and I’m tired. I would like to emphasize that with the items listed above; not believing is not the same as disbelieving. Many of those ideas have some validity, but they have become Truths, rather than simply ideas. They do not face the scrutiny they deserve.

Perhaps I have one more. I do not believe I got any work done this evening…

Inauthenticity and the Null Hypothesis

Some of my more astute students point out that problems that ignore everyday forces are unrealistic. This is true, in the sense that projectiles will face air resistance, rolling objects will experience friction etc. However, this is not to say that performing calculations using such unrealistic conditions is without merit.

Firstly, it provides the opportunity to practice calculation and build algebraic skills. Secondly, it provides a baseline, or null hypothesis.

It is often difficult to measure influences of obscure forces on a system directly. We can, however, devise a model to predict an outcome without such influences. By comparing authentic observations to this theoretical model, the deviation from the predicted outcome due to the extraneous influences can be observed. Thus, calculating the theoretical value without extraneous influences – resistance or friction etc. – can be an immensely useful tool for figuring out the effects of those influences.

This holds for any science, not just physics. Rate limitations in chemistry, galaxy rotation rates in astronomy, population dynamics in ecology, and genetic diversity all have specific models as a baseline. Any mathematical model in science can be used in this way. The Hardy Weinberg equation, in particular, is used specifically as a null hypothesis to determine the deviation of allele frequencies from predicted in order to identify factors influencing population genetics.

If you have students who frequently point out the inauthenticity of textbook questions, then you are on the right track – they are thinking. Bonus. If not, then introduce them slowly to the real world. Have them practice the theoretical problems and do some real-world experiments. Rather than sweep the discrepancies under the carpet, emphasize them. Have students look for trends, make estimates and models to try to predict the real world outcome.

Getting students in the habit of looking for the discrepancies between theoretical and observed can really get them thinking about the big picture, but in order to do this, the theoretical values must be known. So even though the outcome of such questions may seem inauthentic, if your students ask when in real life they would ignore these influences, you have an answer for them.

Classroom 1.9

As many are wont to point out, twenty-first century learning skills are not specifically about computers and technology. It’s just that computers facilitate the interactions and collaboration inherent in what we call 21st century skills. But computers are not the only way. I teach in a 1-1 tablet environment, and the student’s favourite method of collaboration is this:

The whiteboards are tactile, support multiple users, are easily editable, and support colour. What more could you ask for from a collaborative tool?

The funny thing is, at the end of class, someone inevitably whips out a phone to take a picture of their board to share with their group.