Sunday, January 27, 2013

EduCon 2.5, Day 3

I skipped the panel on "What Does the Entrepreneurial Spirit Mean for Schools?". Entrepreneurship has been a big focus of the conference, but it doesn't really resonate with me. It could be a private/public disconnect, but I don't see entrepreneurship as the big thing lacking from education.

My first conversation today was with some kids from SLA. Since the school's completely project-based and standards-based, I asked some kids about homework when I overheard them talking about it. Where does homework fit into the grade? It doesn't. Does that mean that they don't do it? No. SLA does a great job of making homework worth doing and with bringing kids into the process, so that they actually want to do the homework, knowing that it will help them along the way towards becoming proficient with the core goals of the courses. Having ownership of the process a little bit - there are decisions to be made about where to spend the majority of your time, when more practice is needed and when it isn't, etc. - is really important in there process of making kids able to manage their own learning, which they will definitely need to do in college and for the rest of their lives. Even without a stick or carrot of a grade, kids can see the value of work outside of class, but it does take some concerted effort and dialogue about it.

My first scheduled conversation today was "Structuring Inquiry," with Chris Lehmann (head of SLA).
The conversation will continue later at #educoninquiry

First focus: how do we set the conditions for inquiry?

Small group discussion: what do we mean when we say 'inquiry'?

Ideas from the group and from the large group discussion following:

  • Encouraged curiosity
  • cycle of 'wonder, experiment, learn'
  • Empowering students to actually determine things for themselves, not having them dependent on authority (books, internet, teacher) to answer/model
  • Leveraging student curiosity
  • Balancing student interests vs. teacher guidance
  • 80/20 'tinker time', a la Google employees - somebody said yesterday that there's a school doing this for both students and faculty
  • How do you assess inquiry?
  • Does there have to be _one answer? Someone chimes in that the word 'question' is loaded, in that it implies an answer exists. Problem/dilemma/etc. instead?
  • Inquiry based on confusion vs. inquiry based on wanting to understand something at an even deeper level
  • Recursive process: prototyping and revision!
  • Actually taking part in the types of thought practiced by historians, mathematicians, scientists, etc., instead of learning about what they do. This is a big modeling advantage - doing science vs. hearing about science
  • Inquiry means living in an uncomfortable place where the issues are real and difficult and the answers aren't simple
  • Kids don't always know how to ask good questions, because schools often teach them not too. It's important for schools to teach the process of inquiry, even more than content
  • SLA's framework: Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation, Reflection; this is for classes, professional development, etc. - he says that it's an interesting way to make debates and discussions less rigid and more flexible
  • When it's going right, the students and teacher are on the same journey. There is a lot to be said for taking some time to explore something that the teacher doesn't know about, so that you can be an example of real inquiry
  • Doing it from the top-down is difficult, but when kids get hooked on it, they might start to demand it from the bottom up.
  • Demonstrating the value of inquiry can be an issue in a test-obsessed public school situation, but it's important to fight that fight
  • There's an innate tension between AP curricula (many of them, at least) and inquiry. It's important to be "one school" - to be philosophically consistent in every aspect of the school
  • "If you want easy, put the desks in rows. If you want meaningful, there are things that you'll have to grapple with."
  • Tension between messy and neat and tidy - inquiry's a bit messy by design, but didactic instruction is a false efficiency
  • Inquiry can be equalizing - weaker students can be better risk-takers in lots of situations
  • Inquiry builds community
  • Inquiry vs. recipe-based instruction is the important part - project-based classes aren't the magic bullet if they're not applied well
  • Scaffolding's important, and it's the art of the process. Inquiry isn't the same as turning kids loose to find their bliss and drinking some coffee. It's a lot of work and it'll probably look different every time
  • Links: and
  • Scaffolds: giving enough to prime the pump without being prescriptive
  • Here's a telling thing: there are over a hundred teachers in here, hotly debating inquiry and being very high-level in their animated discussions. A student just spoke up and gave her perspective, totally without prompting and totally confidently.
  • Inquiry makes more difficult: covering content, planning, and assessment
  • His view: you can't really get an objective measure of what kids know - certainly not test scores. He also sees grades as mixing up effort ("because sweat matters") and achievement, as opposed to a traditional SBG view of having removing everything but achievement from the grade
  • When you go to a school where there are lots of folks doing inquiry, blogging, etc., things change a bit - you're not the only show in town anymore, but you're in a space where colleagues understand the demands of flexibility, innovation, engagement, etc.
  • What do college students say after leaving SLA? These kids get engaged with professors (even ones that are traditional), do better with research, assignments, and tests in college. His argument is that the classrooms in colleges are traditional, but the tasks that they're asked to do aren't, so that this training transfers well
  • Being the only person in the building do it: benefit from uniqueness, scaffold to take kids from the ground floor up towards more open inquiry over the course of the year, focus on pieces of inquiry at a time (play the JV game before the varsity game)
  • People use the tests, college, etc. as excuses not to start doing inquiry, but is the traditional approach really working now? Is it producing what we really want in kids?
  • Algebra II is the most difficult year to do authentic inquiry/projects, but earlier grades (especially elementary) are the easiest and most profitable places to do it.
  • Final really big question: what else will change if your pedagogy becomes inquiry-driven? Example: discipline (you just taught the students how to question :) )
  • Related question to ask: what's the worst-case scenario of your best idea/intention?
Next session: "Where Are All of the Beautiful Learning Spaces?" with Jennifer Chan (@jennzia), and Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99)

Some high-level talk about what spaces say to us, implications of structures ("All visitors must report to site office"), and what the spaces say ("don't run, think, learn, yell"). 

Their tumblr:

Some discussion questions:
  • What qualities would make a learning space a 'must see' destination?
  • Does the current learning space you use reflect and support your pedagogy?
  • What are the tensions between your ideals and cultural/social expectations?
I'm more conscious of the fact that other folks are more focused on architectural details of spaces than I am. In my lab renovation, I wanted to focus on function: no fixed furniture, whiteboards, etc., but there's more there, too. I'd love for all of my walls to be whiteboards, or even all of the halls! My focus, though, is on what these things do to the learning process. 

Interesting discussion here about security and the unintended bad consequences from trying to fortify and protect schools: "let's stop pretending that our students are any more in danger at school than at the bus stop, in the store, on the playground, etc." 

Next session: "Honoring our Learning Philosophy Through our Learning Reports: Is it About Learning and Progress or is it About Grades?" with Megan Howard (@mwhoward) and Jill Gough (@jgough)

We're introducing ourselves - there's a senior here from a different Philly high school. I don't think that I've seen a student attending an ed conference before...

We took 15 minutes to go around and look at different report cards from four independent lower schools and to leave Post-it note comments. Some interesting things:
  • One of these is 20 pages long, another 11, the others 3 and 5 pages long.
  • I really liked one in which students each wrote comments/reflections for each subject. What would that moment be like when you have to write "I didn't really try this term in Spanish, so I struggled"? I think that it would be a good one.
  • The shorter comments with denser displays seemed to communicate more than the super-verbose ones, which tended to have lots of boiler-plate
Great discussion here on grading and reporting - sorry - I didn't write much down!

The discussion continues on #RCSatl !

The conference that sounds like a monster truck rally (EduCon - Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!) comes to a close. Good conversations and good times - don't come if you're not into participating!


Saturday, January 26, 2013

EduCon 2.5 - Day 2

My first conversation: "A New Vision for Mathematics in High Schools," with (Mike Thayer) @grblxt

The premise is that the algebra 1-geometry-algebra 2-precal-calculus sequence is broken and doesn't work for him. Interesting bits:

  • we teach things in algebra 1 (like rational functions with factorable denominators) to kids in 7th or 8th grade in algebra 1 that weren't part of algebra 1 for most of history.
  • He has a book (missed the author) with 'everything that you need to know about trig, algebra, and geometry - it's 119 pages long.
  • His challenge - assuming competency with fractions, decimals, etc. - can we do all of that stuff in a 100 hour course? This is a course that covers the essentials of algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2. There's less material included in that than in the three courses currently, but what would there need to be?
Now... we discuss...

Some ideas from the group about things that can be thrown away:
  • "most of geometry" - angle theorems, centroids, etc. The idea of proof is important, but does the two-column regime actually communicate that? Do students come out of geometry able to prove things?
  • half angle/double angle/trig identities
  • vocabulary - associative, commutative, etc.
  • matrices
Our group's "keepers" (partial list - didn't get to completion):
  • Right-triangle trig
  • Modeling: choosing appropriate algebraic models for data, using graphical and algebraic representations together, applying and interpreting the models
  • Understanding equations as relationships: create, manipulate, and solve single equations and systems of equations
Presenter's proposal: a one-year intensive experience in abstract math, with topics left out of this course taught in the subjects in which it's applied (exponential growth in bio, etc.). His big idea is that we've divorced math so much from the applications that it's not effectively transferrable to other courses.

Discussion following that:
  • One report of collaboration of science and math teachers just on aligning vocabulary had a big effect on this transferability.
  • Can't we just teach multiplication and exponents conceptually, so that it's not a set of rules, but just a consequence of the concept? Presenter reports his district teaching exponents in alg. 1 and alg. 2; you can't tell which kids had it the first time around - it was divorced from use and totally forgotten. They were rules, but when kids understand that it's repeated multiplication, kids don't need the rules, and can actually use them.
  • What if we co-taught these bits in other courses? That's a scheduling nightmare, but we could be the resource for kids and teachers.
  • Shoving kids through this content is counter-productive: it's painful for all involved, doesn't help kids later, and takes time away from really understanding
  • The assessments are part of the problem: what do they assess, and is it what we really value?
  • A year of mathematical thinking (content fairly unimportant, context important) is a popular notion here
  • Dan Meyer and came up; the issue here is that these are overwhelmingly proportional reasoning problems, so it's not a solution for everything, but it can suck kids in. 
  • A great point that it doesn't have to be about being 'real world,' but 'interesting' is great too
  • Awesome point that we need to be careful not to teach students that math problems are things with unambiguous answers that can be solved in 10 minutes.
  • Does mathematical thinking have to only involve doing mathematics? Can it be done by making these, in a hands-on way? If we reinforce mathematical reasoning tacitly, won't that make the pencil and paper stuff easier and more meaningful?
Some slides from a Standards-Based Grading conversation in a different session:

Now I'm in "Qualitative Formative Assessment: Letting the Learning Environment Dictate the Tools", with Reshan Richards (@reshanrichards).

We start with an odd activity: 
Draw a creature that's half-perro, hal-canard that is sitting near an iconic Philly landmark while contemplating the area of a circle. Provide a grammatically correct sentence as a caption. Stand up and stretch.

He's the creator of the Explain Everything app, and he is looking at making assessment a bit more dynamic, including screencasts.

He has some issues with flipped classes, as they're just time-shifted lecture. Yup, that's true! Also, issues with a paradigm that means that you know exactly what page you'll be on 8 months from now - is it student-centered, in that case?

I'm hearing lots of stories of technology purchased and deployed with little support and buy-in. Lecture/demo as a training method for faculty isn't good, just like it doesn't work well for students.

Each table asked a question, shared them via Google Doc, and re-organized based on interest. I'm in this one: "How do we not put the (laptop) cart before the horse? Adding gadgets without motivation/need/understanding/purpose - it doesn’t help. How do we add technology in a way that positively impacts student learning, and doesn’t just look shiny?

There were lots of observations about top-down tech decisions being problematic, and one good story about an increasing training web of folks that help each other, all the way down to the kids. Training and support really takes more effort/money than buying the darn things. 

The discussions that I was involved in diverged pretty widely from the topic here, which is too bad, but they were good in their own right.

Friday, January 25, 2013

EduCon 2.5, Day 1

I'm attending EduCon this weekend; I left school just before lunch on Friday to come down to visit the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, which is hosting the conference. This is a public magnet school which is both standards-based and project-based. It's really fascinating to see these kids getting deeply into projects. Some observations:

  • First class: Advanced Engineering. They're working on their big projects of the term - I saw robots, water filtration by organisms, and a few other things. The most striking bit of that was when the teacher explained to us that, because of the recent budget cuts (40% over the last two years), the entire school's supply budget (paper, pens, toner, lab supplies, etc.) for the year is $200. No wonder they're all raising funds during the conference: kids are selling pretzels, shirts, etc. I'm going to lose some money today.
  • Second class: History (of some sort). They're role-playing reactions to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from nobles, Haitians, commoners, etc.
  • Third class: Algebra II. I'm not sure how the project-based part was playing out here. They were figuring out various things about parabolas from the equation, in a fairly participatory but mostly traditional setting. I didn't get to see too much of this one.
  • Fourth class: Statistics (I think). They're programming here, debugging and sharing their projects, written using Processing. This one was a game with a player running from ghosts, which will slow the player down if they catch the player. I'm less confident that I'm in statistics now. The schedule says that comp. science engineering and stat meet in the same room with the same teacher at the same time. Interesting!
Visiting another school is a great thing to do - we're all busy, but it's really invigorating, especially when it's a vibrant place like SLA. The students and teachers that I've met have been passionate and curious. What else can you ask for in a learning community?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Pick a Fight!

Well, not really, but maybe a "physics fight"...

We had a friendly competition with a neighboring school today and Friday via Skype:
  • Each school checked out a clip of "Despicable Me" this week (about four minutes, dealing with the rocket trip to the moon, the shrinking of the moon, and the trip back) and was challenged to model, debunk, predict, verify, etc. whatever they could. My class spent 90 minutes on this, and I think that the other school did about the same. 
  • I didn't give them any help or direction, except for telling the name of some new concept that they wanted, so that they could effectively index/Google on their own (terminal velocity, energy-mass equivalence, and shear strength came up)
  • Each problem was whiteboarded, and we took pictures of the boards (some of theirs had nice electronic presentations, though). 
  • Today we Skyped and took turns: 10 minutes of presentation followed by 7 minutes of questions. 
It's not really a competition, but it's fun to frame it that way, since they're used to having long-standing rivalries in sports against local schools.

The investigations were fun, and it was great for the students to interact with each other from afar. We're also planning to trade some screencasts with intentional mistakes in them.

If you want to interject a little more fun into the WCYDWT?/whiteboarding/Mythbusting/modeling paradigm, maybe you should pick a 'fight' with a nearby school!

Here are our whiteboards, from both sections that participated:

An analysis of the speed of the spaceship (not surprisingly, too fast for reality), using the altitudes of different parts of the atmosphere for reference:

An analysis of the mass of the shrunken moon, assuming that its density stayed the same:

...using that mass, the freefall acceleration and very-low-orbit speed for the tiny moon:

Assuming that all of that missing mass was converted into energy, the ridiculously large amount that there would be:

An analysis of how the now-tiny moon would basically eliminate tides:

This class assumed that the moon's mass would stay the same, rather than its density. A proof that this would do nothing to the tides:

Assuming CAPM speeding up and slowing down, the acceleration of the spaceship and the resulting huge forces on Gru, if he is going to make it to the dance recital:

The freefall acceleration on the surface of the tiny moon:

Trying to determine Gru's speed when he hits the shrunken moon (it shrinks to be at its center of mass, so he's one moon-radius away, and then he freefalls towards it); CAPM is used, with the acknowledgment that it's not appropriate.

Assuming that he hits the moon and stops in a short distance (stomach compression), the huge normal force that would be exerted on him by the moon when he hits it:

A comparison of the pressure exerted by that huge force and the shear strength of bone, showing just how easily that moon would cut a hole straight through him (and then he'd continue past it, slowing down as he moves, then back again, in an oscillation with the moon passing through the same hole over and over... OK, physics isn't pretty).

Friday, January 11, 2013

Physics Jeopardy

As part of a little mid-year reflection on the force and motion models that we've developed over the first third-ish of the year, Honors Physics students developed a series of Physics Jeopardy answers and questions.

Our format:

  • 'Answers' (the clues) are motion graphs or net force equations
  • 'Questions' (what the players are supposed to determine from the answers) are diagrams of the situation being modeled
The idea is to encourage a closer connection among three of the representations that are most common - diagrams, graphs, and equations. By going 'backwards,' students have a lot of detective work to do, which really makes them think about which physical statements or results are consequences of which models.

Here's our set of answers and questions: