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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Governmental Non-Control

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A Tweet from Dr. Tyson on April 14th: “When Students cheat on exams it’s because our School System values grades more than Students value learning.”

Obviously, parents want their kids to have the best education possible. For some with the means to do so, that means private school or home school or tutoring or any/all of the above. For most families, this means public school. Kids should be able to receive a good quality, functional, non-judgmental education through their local public school. Personally, I think education should be a basic human right. The problem lies in defining “good quality” and “functional” (and sometimes even “non-judgmental”), and how to evaluate whether these programs are working.

This article in the NYTimes unintentionally illustrates a lot of the problems very well. It describes (and circumscribes) the following problems:

  • a testing/textbook company with power over the schools, the teachers, and the students (and Texas influences a lot of texts across the country)
  • the decline in funding for schools (cuts are happening in Texas and elsewhere, too)
  • legislators who don’t understand what they’re voting on, what they have already voted on, or how it could affect kids
  • a need to have some sort of evaluation system, to prove schools’ efficacy to parents and society in general.

The federal Dept of Education controls some money, regulates policy regarding discrimination, and monitors data. But there is no unified system to guide this country’s education policies within classrooms. Education isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, so it’s technically a state issue as to exactly what, when, and how subjects are taught. Thanks to NCLB, every state is required to have some sort of testing system that evaluates students every few years in reading and math, at minimum. This is just the beginning of the problems with controlling what exactly kids learn in school.

The NYTimes also ran this editorial piece on testing with Common Core standards. (Side note: I think it’s interesting that the Times felt it necessary to note that Common Core was a bipartisan effort.) Here’s another thing in the editorial I think is interesting:

The standards are flexible so that states and localities can implement them in varying ways.

So this means that the standards aren’t really standards? Couldn’t we always get to a particular standard via multiple roads? But if the curriculum is truly flexible, then any particular standardized test will have a sort of hit-or-miss outcome, depending on its content and the instruction thereof. The bottom line is that there is still one standard test in every state, so flexibility of implementation of curriculum is nice, but there’s still a particular set of standardized data that somebody thinks is the ultimate goal.

So that’s where legislators and society wants kids to be. What do teachers want?

In this interview with the Center for Digital Education, on pages 4 and 5, this is what Dr. Tyson thinks teachers do. I agree that generally, there are only a few teachers who will significantly impact a student favorably over their academic lifetime. I strongly disagree with Dr. Tyson in his implication that teachers are content in their menial roles as stewards of tests. Perhaps I’ve worked in unusual situations, but the teachers I know hate tests, especially standardized tests. These tests provide students (and teachers!) with very little experiential input, other than closure of a textbook chapter. To teachers, the real meat of the class is on non-test days, with experiments and brainstorming and puzzles and what-ifs and creative writing and building and making.

And as far as students destined for greatness, grades were not (and are not) my mental calculation as to future possibilities. In my so-far limited experience, my A-students are the ones I don’t have to worry about academia-wise. It’s the B-students and C-students I think about: the ones who don’t give up and proudly earn that non-A grade; the ones who coast by grade-wise, but ask interesting questions; the ones who are genuinely curious about my subject and want to know more about non-textbook materials. And really, I’d be deluding myself if I thought that many of my students were going to be chemists when they grow up.

But I hope I can inspire them to wonder a little.

So what’s a good standard for students? I don’t think there is a single standard that can evaluated by multiple-choice test that would apply to every kid across the country. But I think a better question for those who think they’re in charge of education (i.e., legislators) is why are we evaluating our kids by generated numbers when we should be applauding the kinds of people they’re becoming?

What do teachers really do? Taylor Mali has some words:

Lunch Dates: Derek Muller

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Perhaps better known by his super neat videos on physics, Derek Muller (a.k.a. Veritasium) has produced a bunch of cool and informative videos on how stuff works. His usual format consists of asking a central question, asking real n-the-street people for input, performing the experiment, and an explanation for the workings… sort of a version of Mythbusters, but without the explosions or crazy prop shop. He, instead, visits a lot of universities (and professors at/from universities) to get high-quality explanations and demonstrations.

The first video to get attention had to do with Slinkies. Well, one Slinky:

(And check out the answer as well as the extended version.)

Oh, Dr. Muller’s a nerd all right. Check out his fantastically obvious nerdly delight at getting to touch THE kilogram:

Was it good for you, too?

In a number of his videos, Dr. Muller proposes an experiment, then asks a number of random bystanders what they think will happen. He has been called all sorts of names because of it. Really, he’s got his own PhD thesis to back up ferreting-out and addressing misconceptions head-on, as well as a short TEDx talk. I think he’d get along well with dy/dan who’s working on his own PhD (in math education).

Things to ask during lunch:

  • What is the most exciting thing about education today?
  • What do educational systems get right? wrong?
  • You’re not from or in the U.S.. What do the U.K. and Australia do better (and worse) than the U.S.?
  • Do you think that there should be more science education, and at what level(s)?
  • How do you think of new videos?
  • You probably didn’t think you’d be doing YouTube videos for a living. What did you intend on doing with your PhD?
  • You’ve already got a PhD, a successful YouTube channel, a loyal fanbase, and a TED talk under your belt. For you personally, what kind of recognition or kudos would you consider your ultimate goal?
  • Who in the non-formal-education arena would you like to meet?
  • Who influences you?
  • Was meeting other YouTube-rs as fun as it looked?
  • What would be your ideal day, working or not?
  • What’s your pet sub-subject? Besides education, the physics-related thing that you really love?

Seeing Invisible Things

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I’ve used this Ruben’s tube video by Jared Ficklin for a couple of years in a physics class to show students sound. He does a nice job explaining about compression and rarefaction making the curves (since sound isn’t really a sine wave), but other Ruben’s tube videos, not even the Mythbusters clip, do not. Also, it’s hard to find a student not-impressed by fire:

Even though I’ve seen this guy’s garage more than a few times, I never looked at his bio until the other day (I mean, how many YouTube post-ers do you actually check out?) To my surprise, he’s got a TED talk too. Reminding me of an Oregon hipster (although he’s from Texas), I also think it’s awesome that he speaks to a room full of TED-people in a plaid shirt and jeans.

And then I looked at his TED bio, which has a link to his webpage. This man does a lot of stuff with sound and fire! Okay, that’s kind of a silly statement, considering that first video clip. But really, it’s an impressive amount of tinkering. I wonder how much he spends on propane. But the other things listed in that webpage are also pretty cool. The Stephen Hawking star map is fantastic. The articles he’s written. I think I have a nerd-crush.

So what does this have to do with Neil deGrasse Tyson?

What can I do to get the attention of a bunch of nearly-grown-ups (i.e., teenagers in my classroom)? Do I have to use fire? I sure will, if it works (oh, twist the arm of a chemistry teacher to use fire…) I don’t have the advantages that Dr. Tyson has innately (in that I am neither 6-foot-2, nor baritone) that might keep my students engaged in a verbal fashion. I also don’t quite have his storytelling abilities (but am working on it).

But there’s something more. What can fire do help my students to understand about how chemistry and the world works? I think the reason chemistry is considered the hard science class is that molecules aren’t visible, whereas balls have always rolled down hills and critters have crept across the sidewalks for a long time and it’s visually somewhere in your head.

Chemistry needs some analogies for visual learners. How do you put analogies into the classroom without them being small, token stories or dominating the year with an entire course-worth of not-exactly-chemistry? Is it bad that limiting reagents are like assembling BLTs, balancing equations is a teeter-totter, and chiral molecules are like hands? Should every chemical calculation have a visual procedure to go with it? And where’s the limit?

Math Break: Legos and Trains

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Here’s a Duplo train set:


Its brightly-colored (and rainbow-ordered!) numbered blocks 1-9 fit exactly onto three train cars, with the 10 sitting by itself. Once the adult gets bored assembling the train in the “correct” way for the millionth time just so their toddler can quickly disassemble it and scatter the pieces about, the adult probably wants to have a new system.

What are other ways that the numbered blocks can fit on the trains, with one left over, that makes some sort of ordered sense?

For example,

  • 1,9,10; 2,6,8; 3,4,7 (addition; 5 is left over)
  • 9,6,3; 10,8,2; 5,4,1 (subtraction; 7 left over)
  • 2,4,8; 3,6,9; 1,5,7; (multiples and primes, 10 left over)

I recognize that addition and subtraction are basically the same thing in this case, as would be multiplication/division (although I don’t think it’s possible to do through these blocks).

Teacher Efficacy

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A recent review of employee efficacy came from the Vanity Fair article on how Microsoft lost its “cool” factor. On Page 4, they briefly describe “forced stack ranking” of employees in each group, which is a fancy way of saying “grading on a curve,” where someone is guaranteed to be considered the top and someone will be guaranteed to be considered the worst. Arguably, Microsoft probably only hires a certain high-level of employee. If the set of people working at Microsoft are already considered high-quality and high-intellectualism and high-production (assuming they’ve passed a number of interviews to get their jobs and twice-yearly reviews to keep them), it’s strange to assume that someone in every group at the company must be performing poorly. The Vanity Fair article goes on to describe that this system of ranking, necessitating worry about one’s politics and rank rather than product, is probably one of the reasons that morale and innovation are low at a once-booming company.

A new article in the NYTimes is skeptical of teachers’ efficacy in the classroom. At issue seems to be a low rate of “ineffective” personnel. Principals are blamed for not wanting to give poor marks to teachers, and to teachers for not wanting to drive success.

The Dept. of Education estimates that there were 3.7 million teachers in public and private schools in 2012. Even at the low end of the NYTimes article’s citations, where only 0.2% of teachers were considered “ineffective,” that’s still 7,400 teachers who are doing a poor job somewhere across the country. That’s far, far too many. What do you do with these bad teachers, and are they actually bad?

Perhaps this is the more pertinent question: How many ineffective teachers is too many? I don’t know of any teacher who absolutely refuses to be evaluated: it’s expected as part of the “business” side of education (and any other workplace). I think U.S. teachers are saddened and confused as to why their chosen profession is so demonized as to automatically be considered dubious and a lower caste of society.

But what does an effective evaluation look like? Student test scores only get you so far (since students are [so far] not tested yearly in every subject; in-person evaluations by administrators are time-consuming and expensive; and standardized tests for teachers are not considered viable (although strangely alluring to politicians in evaluating student knowledge).

So what’s really going on in the heads of those who are in control of evaluations? The response is probably something like this beautifully snarky in-head revision of Arne Duncan’s Teacher Appreciation Week letter.

Let’s turn teacher evaluations on its head for a minute: How do you know that teachers are bad, if you also think their evaluation system is ineffective?