Questioning Homework

Search twitter for “math homework” and you’ll find a lot of this;

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Honestly, you’ll see a lot worse as well. Kids hate their math homework, and largely for good reason. Many math teachers assign 20-30 problems for students to complete every night; I was one of them. As a new teacher I came in with the assumption that this practice was essential for students to learn math. Ten years later I’m more convinced then ever that this kind of traditional, drill and kill math homework does more harm than good.

If you’re on Facebook you have likely seen the explosion of parents complaining about their kids’ “Common Core” math homework. I’ll leave the CC part to Christopher and focus on the homework aspect. My 1st grade daughter has homework to complete once a week. Most of the time they are puzzles and simple practice, and sometimes they are even games we get to play. It’s wonderful. We get a chance to interact, talk a bit about math (aside; check out talkingmathwithkids.com), and she learns that math is fun. One time she had homework that was challenging for her. It was frustrating; we had to continually push her to try, and things escalated. It turned out fine, but I can see how parents would get frustrated and vent on social media.

So maybe the problem isn’t Common Core; maybe it’s that the only time students should be doing homework is when they are actually ready for it. I’m not saying don’t challenge kids; I’m saying challenge them when there is an expert in the room ready to help them out. Homework in elementary can be simple, fun, and encourage interaction between parents and kids, if it’s there at all.

I have been thinking about this in context of my Physics classes. A few years ago in my college-at-the-high-school physics class I stopped grading homework. It was counter-productive. I had students who hardly did any homework and aced exams, and students who completed it perfectly that earned Cs. I did have a student one time who didn’t do homework all year, earned C’s and D’s on exams, then did all the homework for the final unit and aced the exam. I still believe practice can help students learn, but I’m questioning how I have students practice. There’s even research in physics that homework actually hurts some students’ learning. The research in general is mixed on homework’s effectiveness, which is exactly why we have to be very careful when and why we assign it.

The problem with not grading homework is that less kids do it, particularly if they were motivated only by the grade (not many of them) or if a different priority overshadowed their non-graded homework (like graded calc homework, for example). I tried a lot of methods to get them to do homework on a regular basis, and all failed. I was frustrated. Much of that homework was problems I wanted students to complete ahead of time so we could whiteboard them more efficiently. However, only half the students attempted the problems, so then I had frustrated students who had done what they ‘should’ explaining things to students who didn’t. It was not efficient, nor did it seem effective.

Kelly O’Shea moved to a no-homework policy a number of years ago, and her students perform as good as anybody’s. Instead of having students do the problems ahead of time, they simply do them in class, then whiteboard them. I decided to give it a try.

The first thing I noticed was the richness of the discussions as students worked on the problems the first time around in class. They ask great questions and help each other out. The second thing I noticed is that it took them waaaaaay longer to complete a worksheet than I expected, as well as struggling more than expected. ‘Honors’ kids! This made me feel awful about previous years; I was assigning a ton of homework they really didn’t know what to do with, and I had no idea. The in-class interaction has been huge to help students start a problem that they would have been stuck on. This experience reminded me of a teacher who once told me that the first time he taught a pre-calc class, he sat down to complete the first assignment that had been traditionally assigned. It took him two hours. That’s crazy. And I suspect it happens more often than we know.

Now the awesome part; the whiteboarding process, where we get to have discussions as a class about the problems, is way better and faster than before. It’s now a time to flesh out nuance and important generalizations rather than figure out how to do the work, and this happens quickly. I have been able to move at exactly the same pace as previous years. Not a day lost, and the kids are happier.

Not only are they happier, but they’re doing better work. the first two exams of the year (Kinematics and Forces) saw significant increases over last year, with probably 1/3 of the homework assigned. I want to emphasize that. Students are doing better with less homework. Though I can’t really tease out the variables, I think the combination of more working in class and more emphasis on actually doing the homework that is assigned makes the difference. I’m still assigning ‘Independent practice’ after the point where I think students have had enough in-class practice to be ready to try it on their own. Often there are 2-3 weeks between these assignments.

Some recommendations to get you started thinking about the homework you assign.

  • Try it yourself. Take the time it takes you to complete and multiply by 3-4 for an estimate of how long it will take a kid.
  • Ask yourself if they are going to learn to hate your class because of  doing your homework, and be honest with yourself.
  • What is the quality of the homework? If you are picking 1-31 odd like I used to, it’s not quality. Choose 4 focused problems instead.
  • If you spend a lot of time going through homework after the fact, would it be more worthwhile for students to work on it with you there? Same amount of time, but that way they are actually doing the work.
  • Try doing something different with homework, and be prepared to be surprised. I didn’t expect that cutting students’ homework load by more than half would raise their achievement, but it did.
  • Finally, listen. Listen to kids in your class. Listen to them rant on Twitter. And do something about it.

Other great reads on homework

Don’t Keep it Simple, Stupid

Teaching is hard.

I don’t mean that there’s a ton of work that can never get fully done (even though there is) or that parents/admin/the general public are hard to deal with (even though they are). I mean that crafting a quality lesson, set of lessons, unit, or entire course is really, really hard.

Every once in a while I run into a former student from long ago who tells me how much they enjoyed my class, and all I can think about was how horrible a teacher I was then compared to now. But I wasn’t a horrible teacher; I just wasn’t as good at it as I have become. I can only hope this will continue to be true 10, 20, 30 years into the future.

Over 10 years of teaching I’ve learned a lot of skills to incorporate into my teaching. I started out teaching Physics and Geometry via overhead projectors (you know, the kind with wet erase markers?), because if I was going to give scripted notes it seemed like a waste of time to write them on the board each hour (turns out scripted notes in general were the waste of time). Over the course of the first 5 years I learned a lot about teaching through inquiry in my physics classes; I went from stating emphatically in a grad class that it was too difficult to guide students through inquiry to being a leader in my 6-12 department on the subject. But that took a solid 5 years and lots of failure; I honestly only succeeded because of lots of support from a mentor through my grad program. Good inquiry learning requires a very structured release of responsibility to the students and a general culture of inquiry throughout the entire course. It took all of 5 years to work out all the aspects of this to implement successfully.

Then I started incorporating a home spun, mediocre version of problem based learning in my geometry classes, though at least it upped engagement and increased learning based on final assessment scores. That took a solid 3 years, and in reality required my inquiry background to accomplish. I only stopped because by this point my physics classes had grown to the point where I became full time in physics and had to drop teaching geometry; honestly, I still had a long way to go and hope to incorporate what I know now about ProbBL back into math classes at some point.

About this time I discovered Modeling Instruction, which taught me, among other things,  how student dialogue can significantly increase the depth of student understanding. I’m three years in and have a long way to go before I’ll consider myself an expert.

So here’s the rub; I’m 10 years in and I know I still have a ton to learn. I’m not that great at facilitating student dialogue yet. I have a long way to go in helping students solve real problems in math class. I struggle with helping students who give up when challenged. I’m sure there’s many other aspects of teaching out there I have yet to learn.

For this reason I think we cheapen teaching by trying to simplify it. Silver bullets in many forms are always popping up in the education world, but quality teaching requires a blend of many talents, and it shows up in many different forms. I think this is why teachers get upset at things like administrators forcing the posting of objectives; emphasizing that over all other important aspects of good lesson design says ‘here, you’d be getting better results if all you did was this.’ It’s patronizing. I think this is also why I’ve never been satisfied with the SAMR model for integrating technology. ‘Oh, you’re only on augmentation? Your students will really be learning when you get to redefinition!’ There are so many ways to go analogue for quality lessons or to use tons of tech for shitty ones. Good teaching is far too complex to be boiled down into an acronym.

The false notion that creating a quality lesson is simple is also why we haven’t had successful education reform.We have a culture in the US built on instant gratification; no one is willing to wait the 15-20 years it would take to make progress. And no one is willing to take on the really hard work of making sure all teachers are trained and continuously supported in the many techniques that have been shown through research and practice to work to improve student learning. Instead we throw technology into the room and ask teachers to redefine education on their own using their 45 minute prep period, because we can do that in the span of a couple of years.

I hear teachers complain that their pre-service training didn’t prepare them for teaching. The problem is, it can’t. One can’t be fully prepared to find the right potion of techniques for a classroom without experience, trial, and error. Maybe this means that longer apprenticeship-like experiences with more built in support for new teachers would be helpful. I don’t know. I do know that there’s always room for improvement, and creating a national culture to actually support and encourage that would be a great first step.

This post was inspired by this tweet by Ilana and the conversation that followed.

What would you do with $x?

Dan Meyer posted earlier this week about how, given $1000 for a classroom, he would spend it on whiteboards for the walls, a doc cam, and some miscellaneous hardware. I tweeted the article, and got the following response;

Challenge Accepted.

Some assumptions; A class of 30 is easy to do math with (adding up costs type math, not classroom type math). I assume solid wifi since I don’t have $1mil laying around for an upgrade. The classroom comes stocked with an overhead projector, a standard issue computer, and one 4′ x 16′ front whiteboard. I’m going to assume (based loosely on my memory) that a classroom is 30′ x 30′. Lets say one wall is windows from 4′ to 8′, because it depresses me to think of a classroom without windows. Generally speaking I took the first price I found on any particular item, and I reserve the right to round anything to the closest order of magnitude, for reasons of estimation (or laziness). Also, I currently teach only physics, but have taught math, particularly Geometry, for a number of years. I’m writing this post about a math classroom because it’s more universal and more in line with what Dan and Jeremy are positing. A physics classroom adds significant cost, as full computers are desired because of software and hardware demands for digital data collection, as well as the data collection hardware purchases themselves. That said, most of the stuff I list below I would like in my physics classroom, I just would have to do more cost/benefit analysis to compare data collection devices (likely from Vernier) with the more general items below.

Spoiler alert; most of my purchases stem from a desire to encourage students doing rather than getting. Watch for that.

Unlimited Funds: My first purchase is going to be on the assumption that some donor will fund whatever I ask for, and that money unspent is money lost. That is, I don’t affect anyone else’s classroom or materials by skimping, so I don’t have to be all that ethical. First of all, I agree with all the folks in Dan’s post and get a bunch of whiteboards;

  • 36 Medium sized (24×32 in) student whiteboards ($100)
  • 36 Small (16 x 16 in) student whiteboards ($30)
  • Cover all the non-windowed walls in whiteboards ($5000, turns out quality classroom whiteboards aren’t cheap)
  • 2 rollable whiteboard dividers ($1000)

Frank Noschese wrote a great post about student whiteboards. Seriously, go read it, I certainly can’t improve on it as far as reasons to have students use whiteboards. Since I have unlimited funds in this scenario, I could purchase nice manufactured whiteboards at $120 a pop. But that’s so ridiculous that I can’t stand it. I can go to Home Depot and purchase a $15 sheet of 4′ x 8′ that makes 6 medium whiteboards or 16 small whiteboards. Why anyone would pay $12o for one of these aristocratic whiteboards is beyond me, let alone a class set for $3600. Next, covering the walls and adding dividers is to reduce barriers for students to talk about what they are doing. All they have to do is pick up a marker (I should probably have a $1000 marker budget….) and start collaborating. Clearly that takes some pedagogical skill (that I don’t know that I have yet), but we’ll save that for another post. I feel like 2 rollable dividers would be nice to be able to use in the middle of the room as well, but I think more of them would make it too cluttered. Honestly, what I really would want (but is even beyond reasonable for this unlimited funds exercise) is some system where students can easily drop whiteboards (or glass, that’d be cool too) from the ceiling, then raise it up again as a space saver. Plus then we’d have math on the ceiling, and that’d be pretty neat.

Noticeably missing: A SMART board. I don’t have one now, and don’t really want one. I want stuff that helps students collaborate and dialogue; a SMART board would be for ME. Seriously, even with unlimited funds, I wouldn’t get it simply because I want to do everything I can to encourage students to do the work. Whiteboard total: $6130.

Next let’s look at the classroom setting itself.

  • 15 Tables on Casters ($7500)
  • 30 Chairs on Casters (If you want to get crazy this could be up to $7500, but a simple internet search indicates I can do more like $3000)

Desks make it harder for kids to collaborate. I would love tables on casters for a number of reasons. I like that kids can easily group up on them. I like that we can move them into a whole class rectangle, put a couple together for larger group work, or get them all out of the way to do something more kinesthetic. Chairs on wheels would be nice too, but again I have trouble justifying the crazy expensive version. Class setting total: $10500.

Now we hit the technology setting. I’m going to start with room-scale technology.

  • 70″+ TV on casters ($2000)
  • Five 36″ TVs mounted on the walls. above the precious whiteboards, of course ($2500)
  • Apple TV for each TV to wirelessly project Apple products ($500)
  • I’m going to assume we can install some magic circuitry such that each TV can be accessed individually or they can all show the same thing, but I don’t feel strongly enough to actually research this. (umm…$1000?)
  • A teacher Macbook Air ($1000)
  • A teacher iPad mini ($300)
  • iPad doc cam setup ($130)

Actually, before I explain those, I want to add in the student technology;

  • 17 Chromebooks ($5100)
  • 2 iPad Minis ($600)
  • Chromecast for each TV to wirelessly project the Chromebooks ($200)

I saw the TV on casters once at a presentation on room design, and I fell in love with it for physics purposes. I would love to be able to roll it to the ‘front’ of the room as standard use, but then move it to the lab space to demo lab procedures, and have the flexibility to move the ‘front’ to wherever feels right. I have a harder time envisioning its use for math, but hey, dreaming big here. The TVs on the sides are more for students. I think it would be really neat while students work if “Hey Jasmine, that’s a neat graph, can you bring it up on screen 3 to show everyone?” became a reality. I like multiple TVs so students can regularly show each other, in small groups, what they are working on, hence the Apple TV and circuitry. Note that Apple TV, Airserver, and I’m pretty sure Chromecast, all use Bonjour, which can mess with network stuff that is beyond my expertise. So definitely check with someone on the IT side of things before investing there. The Macbook is so I can be anywhere in the room and still bring up something on a screen (as opposed to a desktop computer). I really like the iPad mini for classroom use because it fits in my hand easily, so I can take lots of pictures and use it as a doc cam as I walk around. The doc cam setup allows me to use it like a ‘real’ doc cam as well. I hear doc cams can do some pretty neat things, and we may be missing out on that with the iPad, but I feel like the flexibility of the iPad makes up for that. Both the iPad and the Macbook will have to be replaced 2-3 times over 10 years, so let’s add $3000 for replacement costs. Room-scale tech; $7500, $10,500 including replacement costs.

For student tech, I would go with Chromebooks because of their ease of use in a cart setting. That is, students don’t have their own, but logging into and out of a Chromebook is really easy to do. I only want 17 because I want a 2:1 ratio plus a couple extra, since batteries die and hardware stops working randomly (just when you want it the most). I want a 2:1 ratio for two reasons; first, I have heard from a number of people in 1:1 situations (we’re not there yet, though I have 10 laptops in my room) that even though each kid has a device, they often have half  go screen downs anyway. This is to encourage collaboration and to discourage multi-tasking. Kids are much less likely to check Facebook if their partner is watching over their shoulder. My second reason for 2:1 is that managing a cart is really annoying, and I think it becomes much more manageable with half the devices. I would deal with that if I had a solid pedagogical reason for 1:1, but I personally want more collaboration rather than individualization in my classroom anyway. Both Chromebooks and iPads run Desmos and Geogebra well, which accounts for probably 75% of my tech use in a math class. I like iPads a bit better for the ability to use the camera and draw on the surface, but the annoyance of lack of profiles for sharing the device easily negates that. We’ll figure out a workflow to use student devices to capture pictures and video and get it to the Chromebooks as needed. I include a couple iPads since it will inevitably be nice for some kids to just use them instead of personal devices (which they may not actually have).

We can only assume Chromebooks and iPads last about 3 years, so we should add in about $15,000 in replacement costs over 10 years. This leaves us with a student technology cost of $6000, pushing $20,000 with replacement costs.

So far in our unlimited funds scenario we are spending about $30,000 plus asking for $20,000 in replacement costs to sustain it for a bit. I don’t think money for replacement costs is common though.

Self-limit. Now I’m going to take a few things out because I have a conscience and I can’t picture an acceptable cost/benefit ratio for a couple of the items. The TVs on the walls have to go first, then the rollable large TV, and probably even the rollable whiteboard dividers. I would keep one Chromecast and Apple TV to retain the ability for both student and teacher devices to wirelessly connect to the overhead projector that we assumed started in the room (though it needs an HDMI input, and if it’s older, that would be a problem). No more need for $1000 magic circuitry though. This trims about $6000, and if we assume no replacement costs, we’re down to $24,000 now.

$20,000 limit. I would start by skimping on chairs, so getting rid of chairs with casters saves about $2000 from the self-limit amount. Then I would cut the other $2000 in wall whiteboards. It still leaves a lot of whiteboard space (I figure I can still put standard 4′ tall whiteboard around most of the room with the leftover $3000 whiteboard budget), it just wouldn’t be floor to ceiling.

The $10,000 question. This is the number I think starts to get into the realm of ‘I could potentially convince someone to actually fund this.’ It’s also where my decisions get more difficult. In particular, I really want to keep the tables on casters. I really like (at least in theory) their flexibility. So I cheated a bit, did some more research, and founds some cheaper tables. Thus what I would keep, when nailed down;

  • 36 Medium sized (24×32 in) student whiteboards ($100)
  • 36 Small (16 x 16 in) student whiteboards ($30)
  • Only add two 15′ x 4′ wall whiteboards ($1500)
  • Cheaper tables on casters, chairs with no casters ($4000)
  • 15 student Chromebooks and one Chromecast ($4500)

This puts me over budget by $130. Pin me down and I’d cheat by finding even cheaper tables and/or chairs. I’m not getting rid of the whiteboards.

In the end I basically agree with Dan and other twitter folks, but with extra cash I would add tables and Chromebooks. I think I’d add the Chromebooks first, as I really like what you can do even with just Desmos and Geogebra. But tables are really close. I honestly didn’t expect, when I started this process, that in the end I’d keep the tables. I think I need to get moving on asking for some for my actual classroom.

Note that what’s left is a bunch of things for students to use. I didn’t even try to do that (really). Here’s hoping my practices reflect my apparent beliefs.

On a personal note, this was a really interesting exercise for me to examine why I hold particular items dear in my classroom. I hope it’s insightful for you as well, and I would love for you to share your thoughts, additions, subtractions, or anything else in the comments.

Here’s the spreadsheet I used to collect items and costs, in case you want to look at it more closely.

UPDATE: Megan Hayes-Golding suggested something I really just had to add back in; a multi layered whiteboard. This definitely goes in the unlimited category. I would definitely consider finding room for it in the $20,000 limit.

I Am Not Satisfied

I refuse to believe that kids should simply tolerate math**. I refuse the idea that math as a pursuit is so trivial and uninteresting that we have to spice it up by adding systemic, extrinsic motivational gadgetry to help kids stomach it (see my favorite post on gamification by Bill Ferriter). Math is the study of patterns, a beautiful, perplexing, engaging task on it’s own, that we manage to stifle on a systemic level by reducing it to trivial tasks of memorization, regurgitation, and pseudocontext.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not against games, nor occasional extrinsic motivation. I will not, however, accept that we’re ready to throw up our hands and concede that the subjects that hold our passion are not worth the attempt to instill that same excitement in our students. So I am against the systemic marginalization of our passions for pursuits like gamification or edtech for edtech’s sake.

I refuse to believe that we need edtech, generally, to engage students. I have seen plenty of engaging lessons with the absence of technology. I’ve seen Ellis Island simulations where students take part in sorting, waiting, and deportation, a powerful experience to help students wrap their minds around something typically far outside their realm of possibility. I’ve seen students compare and contrast cultures by visiting different ethnic marketplaces and reflecting on the practices of the shopkeepers as they try to bring good fortune on their stores. I’ve seen students debate passionately about important topics that they can work to address. I’ve seen students literally cheer in physics class. They didn’t need to augment their reality in the app store.

That said, there are a lot of great ways to enhance education with technology as well. Take, for example, the video my student made two years ago about how an Ocarina works. She could have written a paper about it, but the video reaches a larger audience as well as communicates her learning more effectively. And that’s exactly my point; the learning in the video is what makes it the most awesome; the video simply serves to enhance that.

There’s the rub; use edtech, but use it wisely. If you can’t communicate the purpose in learning behind your use of edtech, then I question it’s use.

I have had my share of poor edtech decisions. I once did a research project on forces using collaborative Google Docs, where kids learned about how to use docs but nothing about forces. I’m not perfect. But I did learn from that experience, and after realizing that the project didn’t help students gain any real understanding, I ditched it.

On the note of lesson design, I am not satisfied with simplifying the complexities of teaching to where it falls on the SAMR scale. Teaching is nuanced, fluid, and has a ton of moving parts, and we’d be better off embracing that than cheapening it with a stamp of ‘modification.’

I am not satisfied with degrading the student experience of learning by sugar coating it with edtech. I believe students are adventuresome, energetic, and truly want to learn. We just need to harness that energy on a systemic scale. We can certainly harness the power of technology to do so, but it should carry the banner of learning in doing so.

This post was written because I tend to be a dissenting voice in many discussions, and recently I’ve gotten a bit of pushback about that (one example of a few). But I refuse to be satisfied with band aid solutions when a transplant is needed for the real chance of survival (or better yet, the real chance to thrive). I’m very pleased that my district is looking big picture at how we teach and how students learn first, then looking at how technology can support that. I do think, however, that the edtech community needs to acknowledge that the focus must shift in a real way towards learning as the first priority. We may say learning first, but if we then push the use of the next big app, that message is lost in translation.

I am not satisfied with how my class went this year, nor will I be for next year. But I will continually seek improvement, and will do so in the name of student learning. That’s all I ask of anyone.

**insert class of your choosing here.

Pedagogy : Edtech :: Chicken : Egg?

Today I was in an inter-district meeting via G+. We started with introductions where we were charged with sharing something innovative going on in our district. At my turn I shared that I was happy about the academic redesign process that my district has gone through over the past 6 months, particularly because I like that we are considering pedagogical shifts before implementing devices with kids. My basic claim is that I would rather see teachers ready to handle student-centered, discovery-type classrooms, which leads to a specific purpose for implementing technology to help make that happen. I was surprised when some of the members of the meeting pushed back a bit on that notion. The basic argument (which I sincerely hope I’m not mis-representing, this was a very amicable conversation) seemed to be that teachers need to know the technology to be able to teach differently using it. My frustration with a ‘devices first’ approach stems from, for example,  hearing stories of districts spending millions of dollars to ‘transform’ doing math from paper worksheets to PDF worksheets in Notability. It seems to me that we should train teachers in the (very difficult to master) craft of teaching through inquiry and student dialogue, at which point they would be ready to implement fantastic tools like Desmos or Geogebra to facilitate that learning. I’m wondering what you think, internet. Am I off my rocker? Am I missing something? Or does pedagogy first resonate with you as well? I appreciate your thoughts.

Modeling the Mistake Game

I’ve been convinced for some time about the value of playing the mistake game, but I have been unable to get my students to successfully buy into it. Today we started graph stacks, where one of the three kinematic graphs (position vs. time, velocity vs. time, and acceleration vs. time) are given to students and they need to qualitatively sketch the other two. I wanted to use it as an opportunity to once again try the game.

First period I allowed students to work for a while on attempted the graphs, and then I assigned two groups the same problem. I asked one of the two groups to purposefully make a mistake and didn’t say anything to the other group.

2014-09-26 08.45.29While I liked the comparison, we ended up with 6 people in front of the room while all the conversation was focused on the three with the mistake. They rode it out and did a great job, but I still didn’t feel like kids knew what questions they should ask to back the group into a logical corner. So I decided to change it up 2nd period.

I again let students work for a while, and then I picked a problem and put it on the board with some mistakes embedded. The position vs. time graph is the original that was given, and the black on the v vs. t and a vs. t graphs is what I originally drew . The orange is the corrections we eventually made through questioning.

2014-09-26 10.34.19

I told students that I was going to model a presentation where we play the mistake game. I then gave the presentation; “The position is decreasing and positive so the velocity was positive but decreasing as well.” Then I gave them a minute to talk to their partners about good questions to ask.

And they didn’t ask good questions.

But what happened was that I was able to stop the minute someone asked a great question. “What is the slope of the position graph at time zero?” We then had a conversation about how forcing someone into a logical corner doesn’t happen with one question; it happens with a series of questions. So once I know that the slope of the position graph is zero at time zero, that leads to the logical connection that the velocity has to be zero at time zero.

Still, I didn’t feel like it went that well. So I let them work for a while again, then I picked the next problem and modeled it again.

They forced me into a corner in less than 2 minutes.

They learned through the first modeling session that a good question is one about the specific of the graph, not about what the person was thinking. Starting a question with “Why did you….” often doesn’t help. Starting instead with “What is the slope…” or “Are the velocities positive, negative, or zero…” does.

3rd period I repeated the process of modeling the mistake game with exactly the same results; it was painful the first time, and quick the second. I think I’ve got a keeper. Tons of students asked questions; they really seemed to be into it. Monday we’ll be trying the game with students presenting and I’ll update this post with the results.

UPDATE: Anecdotally, I felt like the day students presented their graph stacks with purposeful mistakes was one of the best whiteboarding experiences I’ve had so far. For each and every problem students were explicitly evaluating and analyzing every aspect of each graph, as opposed to correct graphs where they seem to say ‘yep, looks right.’ The quiz results were impressive. Out of a 4 point scale, last year the average was 2.36 whereas this year’s was 3.21 (p<0.0001). I’m in for the mistake game as a regular part of class from now on!

Reluctant Participants and Board Meetings

As I start my 3rd year of Modeling Instruction, I’m happy to be in a place where I can start tweaking rather than making sweeping changes to my courses. My primary goal this year is to give more help and attention to students who struggle, and one of the ways I plan to do this is to pointedly seek methods for engaging them more during class. My first plan of attach on this concerns board meetings.

If you are not familiar, a “board meeting” is loosely defined as having students form a large circle so that they can observe each group’s whiteboards. I typically use this method of whiteboarding to have groups compare data from the same lab in order to induce aspects of a particular model. 

Despite having 25 students in a class, I noticed last year that board meetings tended to be dominated by less than 5 people. I want to try to get all the students involved; I want them all contributing and wrestling with the data. This year I’m going to have board meetings start by giving students 1-2 minutes to simply look around and make at least one observation. I want them to do this silently, individually. I think that sometimes there are students (like me) who are comfortable word-vomiting immediately about what they see, which then overwhelms students who prefer to sit back, take in info, and process before speaking. I want to give that second group time to process. After this time period, I’m going to have them turn to share their observation with the person next to them. Again, I want every single student in the room interacting about the data. After that I think I’ll have them go around the circle to share with the whole group. I thought about letting groups volunteer or cold-calling on groups, but by going around the circle I can step out and simply record their thoughts with minimal guidance and intervention.  As groups report in, I think I’ll stick with my observations/claims approach to help students organize the information reported out. 

I think throughout the year I will slowly remove the scaffolds like turning to partner or going around the circle in favor of more organic approaches, but I’m thinking I’d keep the 1-2 minutes of process time. I really want to help the processors engage before the vomiters get in their way. 

I know this isn’t new in general (yeah, yeah, it’s basically ‘think pair share’), but I think applying the idea specifically to a board meeting has some merit. I’ll report back with how it goes. I’ll also hopefully be posting with other possibilities for getting *all* students engaging in the various aspects of a modeling classroom. 

UPDATE: I did this will all my classes and I believe it was very successful. In addition, we had finished collecting data in one class period but didn’t have time to whiteboard it, so I had them put it in their lab notebooks (sketch a graph, record the equation in words, write the slope and intercept with units and uncertainties), and then to write a couple of sentences summarizing what the results meant. When they came back the next day, I had them take 2 minutes to discuss their paragraphs with each other. I like that this both helped them think about the data first, and then also incorporated some writing, which I hope to do more. After discussing their summaries, I had them gather in a circle and do what I described above. I really believe that this process helped get more students directly involved in wrestling with the data than only doing a standard board meeting. 

I want to thank Patrick Briggs, who keynoted for our all-district kickoff yesterday, for explicitly pointing out  that many students need time to think and prepare before they are willing/able to have an academic conversation.  

Differentiating Professional Development

Today I came across the following tweet by Kate;

I was initially torn. On one hand, I’ve been in the audience for this, and it’s frustrating. On the other, for the last couple of years I’ve been the one in front, and that’s not easy either. I’ve given some lip service to trying to differentiate this type of required professional development but haven’t followed through. Additionally, the team I work with and I have a general goal of wanting to get away from a model where teachers depend on us for technology training and instead focus on improving  pedagogical approaches, so I want to help teachers to be able to learn the specific tech skills they need, when they need it, without a need for sit-n-git PD.

So I posed a question;

There were two ideas that came out of the discussion that I am going to particularly focus on because I think they could work for me.

I like this idea because the list could even be split into ‘need to know,’ intermediate, and advanced sections so that folks who already have the basic competencies can expand their skills with that particular tool, and it could set a baseline for what we expect all teachers to know and be able to do (kinda like we do for students…) with that tool. I like that it very granularly differentiates for teachers. That said, I really like the possible collaborative nature of the second idea;

I like that here teachers could work together to learn whatever competency is expected. I think this is what I would try first, as I’m pretty big into collaborative learning and want to model that with teachers as well.

In either situation, I would like if this were the norm;

As the PD leader, I should be doing two things; provide learning experiences for my participants, and providing opportunities for them to share what they have learned with each other. (Side note: this is no different that what good teaching in a classroom looks like). One reason I particularly like these methods of differentiating PD is that it makes it more difficult for students teachers to get sidetracked, as they can move on to learn things they don’t already know. (I’m the worst student; I try to multitask with twitter, mail, and more twitter, and I end up missing a lot. For that reason as well as this study I have been trying more often to close my laptop and take notes by hand. I’m confident that being allowed to move ahead and explore, with accountability, would keep me more focused.)

Do you have other ideas for differentiating PD? Thoughts about these methods? Let me know in the comments!

What Makes For Good Ed Tech? An ISTE 2014 Reflection

A couple weeks back I attended the ISTE 2014 convention, and I discovered something;

This wasn’t the first time I got worked up about edtech, but this time my frustration is directed towards the amount of money thrown around, particularly on products that don’t consider pedagogy nor the extensive research available on  how students learn. That got me thinking about how we can wade through the dump and find the treasure.

So I wanted to look more at some companies where I really value their emphasis on students and learning to see if I could find some patterns.

Let’s start with Desmos. A quick click to their about page reveals this;

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It’s very clear, and easy to find, that their focus is on constructivist learning. Then if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that they’ve partnered with amazing teacher leaders Dan Meyer, Christopher Danielson, and Fawn Nguyen to make some great lessons, designed for learning, powered by Desmos. I also had the fortune to have an extended conversation with Eli Luberoff, CEO of Desmos, and was struck by how much their pedagogical ideals influence what they do. They want to create a place for students to experience math, not a place where math is done to them. It’s inspiring.

Another good example is Dreambox. Their front page boasts

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My daughter uses Dreambox through her school, in a different district than where I teach. I was won over to Dreambox first by the exercises she was completing that place strong emphasis on conceptual development of place value and the meaning of mathematical operations, and then by a great conversation with Tim Hudson, a former math teacher who now designs curriculum for Dreambox. Tim confirmed that pedagogy and conceptual development of mathematics are at the forefront in the design of Dreambox activities.

Aleks

At first glance, Aleks (adaptive learning software) seems to be grounded in research.

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I started digging a bit about Knowledge Space Theory, and found KST is about assessing knowledge, not about how students are able to actually gain that knowledge The difference is important. While it’s good to know what students do and don’t understand, it’s more difficult, in my experience, to actually get them to learn things. Dreambox focuses on getting students to understand concepts through conceptual development, while Aleks focuses on, from what I have seen, drill and kill practice based on what the platform decided a student doesn’t know.

Khan Academy 

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I admire that Sal Khan wants to change “education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”. It’s an admirable goal, and one worth pursuing.

The problem is that KA repeatedly refuses to consider research on pedagogy and student learning (see Frank Noschese’s and Christopher Danielson’s posts for starters). The about page boasts about data and badges (read Bill Ferriter’s post about the problem with badges) rather than about deep thinking and conceptual development. I won’t rehash Frank and Christopher’s arguments, but seriously, go read those posts. It’s amazing what we do actually know about learning, and that Mr. Khan is dismissive of it all.

After my Twitter rant at ISTE about edtech nonsense, Kelly made an interesting observation;

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Edtech as an industry seems bent largely on ‘personalization’ and ‘individualization’; there is, however, a significant research base on student learning through collaboration and dialogue. Edtech should aid in promoting methods that work, rather than move away from them. Some are. I’m hoping this post helps myself and others make some strides as to how to find those edtech companies that really do have students, rather than dollars, at their core.

As for the edtech startups,  I can only hope they heed Frank’s edtech PR tips.

Finally, the most reliable method I have found in vetting edtech is to pay attention to what the right people are saying. Everybody in the MTBoS raves about Desmos. When I originally posted to Twitter asking about Dreambox I got rave reviews from folks I highly respect. KA, on the other hand, is not spoken highly of in those circles, and I don’t ever hear mention of Aleks. Chances are good, it seems,  that if a number of twitter folks are raving about a product for it’s usefulness in student learning, it’ll be a good one. Find people who explicitly evaluate learning effectiveness, and listen to them.

 

The Current State of Educational Technology

I’m starting to feel like a technology curmudgeon.

I’ve been thinking for a while about how technology should be used in schools. Around 3 years ago I started pushing for more access to technology in my district, and I would like to think my motivation was righteous; I saw possibilities to enhance student engagement and learning but didn’t have the ability to do so because of filters/policies/lack of hardware. So I pushed. And pushed.

The first result was the ability to pilot Google Apps for Education with my kids. I had them do a research project where they investigated types of forces and used Google Docs to compile their research. It was neat, and pretty cutting edge for my district at the time (circa 2010). Did they learn how to use Google docs and how to collaborate? Sure. Did they learn any physics? I honestly doubt it.

Then from 2010-2012 I was able to acquire probeware that collects digital data for physics, then we use computers with a program called LoggerPro to analyze the data. One of the great things LoggerPro does is allows for video analysis, such that we can plot position, velocity, and acceleration vs. time for objects within the video frame. For quite some time the workflow was as follows; we would collect the data using cameras, walk to the computer lab, upload and analyze the data, then print the graphs so we could discuss it the next day.

Fast forward to 2012. I somehow was able to convince someone to give me 10 laptops to use in my room. The very first day they were ready I ran into an interesting problem with some data students had collected. Some said the data indicated a linear relationship, some said quadratic. We had 15 minutes left of class, and I made a snap decision; go re-collect the data, this time being very careful when doing the video analysis. We came back together, and sure enough every graph was linear.

This would not be possible without the technology accessible to me at that very moment. But where would this activity fit on the SAMR model? I’m not sure that really matters. In this case, kids were certainly learning more physics, though not as much about how to use technology, since LoggerPro isn’t as scalable to life-outside-school as is using Google docs. Does that make one better than the other? Depends on your objectives, I imagine. But the point I want to make was that I didn’t need extensive training to redefine my technology use in the classroom; instead I needed students to have immediate access to the technology so that they could use it in the moment for learning. My training on how students learn physics through experiences was far more valuable than learning the technology itself.

For the last two school years I have held a half-time position in my district as a technology integration specialist. This year in particular has been amazing, as we have been able to hire enough TOSAs to have a team of us who collaborate to help teachers integrate tech as well as to investigate and make decisions regarding the future of technology in our schools. I love that my boss significantly weighs our input in making decisions. My question right now is what direction these decisions should head in the area of technology integration and professional development.

A couple weeks ago I had a brief twitter conversation with a few others regarding how we (as tech trainers) help staff use technology effectively.

What I mean is that I think a focus on SAMR (or any other tech-focused PD model) loses the forest in the trees. The tech isn’t the focus; learning is.

Then at the TIES 2013 conference, my by far favorite session of day one was given by George Couros, who definitely didn’t mention any websites I can use in class tomorrow. Instead, he said this;

The biggest game changer in education is the way our teachers think.

He also showed us what success looks like. And told us to be more dog. And to jump.

But seriously. Is moving education forward really about using the flashy new game you learned? Or is it about using good pedagogy, then having tools at your disposal to be able to utilize that pedagogy? I think the answer is clearly the latter, but the majority of time, money, and effort seems focused on devices and software rather than on how students learn.

Time to change that.