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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Lunch Dates: Dan Meyer

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Lately, I’ve read a lot of articles and papers and expositions (with a Platonic-conversation-twist, even!) on how mathematics curricula is terrible and demoralizing and demeaning and meaningless.

Enter Dan Meyer. He doesn’t like the current direction math is “supposed” to be taught. He also has a TEDx talk, in which he describes student impatience and complacency that is awfully applicable to math and non-math subjects alike. His blog, dy/dan is already listed in my links (didja get the calculus joke?)

I think I first found Mr. Meyer through a random search online. I somehow got to this lesson on filling a water tank:

It was one of the first entries his series called “What Can You Do With This?” Through several of these videos, he refined the format for his WCYDWT videos. After more adjustments, he now creates Three-Act Tasks, a generalized pattern for everyday, yet simple, situations for students to create their own questions and puzzle through their own answers. Three-Act Tasks are now created and tweaked by his numerous blog and Twitter followers. Recently, he’s started a group effort to fix textbook questions into Three-Act Task formats, to make them more (frankly) interesting and applicable.

To me, it’s kinda sad that such a thoughtful teacher has left the profession in favor of a PhD. On the other hand, hopefully he can continue to inspire even more teachers online than he has already touched in his (pretty faithful) following.

What’s so compelling about Mr. Meyer? He seems like a genuine who truly wants to help kids not-hate math, and maybe even enjoy it a little. And, hey, individual thinking skills and actually creating curiosity in the classroom is not terrible either. Not only that, but he also seems to want to help other teachers re-engage with their enjoyment of teaching and sharing that passion with their students. You can’t get a whole lot better than that.

Questions during lunch:

  • Why did you enter teaching?
  • Why are you leaving teaching?
  • What do you miss about teaching? and not miss?
  • In your classroom, what kinds of assessments or rubrics or evaluation tools did you use to grade students?
  • What do you want to get from the, may I say, fantastic network of people you blog to/with?
  • What should general-society people know to be mathematically literate? Mathematically functional?
  • What makes a good student?
  • What makes a good teacher?
  • Is there a part of math that isn’t taught that should be?
  • You seem to have a beef with Khan Academy-style stuff (and I happen to agree). But what in particular bugs you about it more than textbooks or canned lessons? What do you think about online learning in general?
  • How do you feel about public verses private schools? Charters?
  • Is STEM learning the right solution?
  • What do you want to do once you finish your PhD?
  • What do you hope to hear from students who visit you in 5 or 10 years?

The Future Looks like Podcasts

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Progress is, by definition, occurring all the time.

Reform, however, is a tricky thing.

Education reform, at least in the U.S., hasn’t happened a whole lot. There have been lots of equity enforcement, new testing, more new testing, and even New Math. But education itself hasn’t changed drastically ever. Kids go into a room, read information, and regurgitate that information into different formats which are graded for some set of criteria.

In 2011, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, an education consultant who works on Common Core advocacy, presented a talk at TEDxNYED on what she sees as the future of education:

I like a few things she said. Among other things, Dr. Jacobs claims that we’re schooling our kids for the 19th Century, not the 21st, so we need to modernize education to prepare our kids for the present. She also advocates getting rid of grade levels and graduation, so as to actually prepare kids for as long as they actually need school. In particular, she says that most teachers aren’t opposed to ed reform, they just don’t know where or how to start. I’ve also found that to be true. Heck, that’s what a lot of this blog is about: my search for how to try new things in class. In a less-egocentric note, Dr. Jacobs also advocates new classroom assessments, like getting rid of the oral report in favor of podcasts.

Basically, I think Dr. Jacobs is a slightly kinder, gentler version of Sir Ken Robinson:

I absolutely want my students to be interested in what they’re working on. I completely agree with not grouping kids by “manufacture date” instead of ability (more of a Montessori-esque mentality).

Here’s my question: Are Dr. Jacob’s ideas really progress? And progress toward what? How different is it for kids to read an oral report versus recording podcasts that are played for the class? Doing an interpretive dance for the pH unit instead of worksheets is far more interesting (and entertaining!), but is it really progress? When these students have to write an entrance exam for their college classes or apply for jobs, what 21st Century skills will be in their heads from having made candy models of algebraic functions rather than working out sheets of written problems? Will Tweeting a version of Ben Franklin’s life create a functional member of society more than writing a historical fiction tale or a three-paragraph summary? How are these suggestions more valuable than their predecessors?

During my teacher training, I was required to take a number of “technology”-related courses. One of the options was an entire quarter-length course on how to integrate Palm Pilots into your curriculum. Another course taught how to make WebQuests. WebQuests are sort of still around, but mostly for elementary-level kids. Palm Pilots are pretty much gone. So much for progress. Actually, of all of those courses, the only one kind of worth my time was a class on online-gradebook-keeping, which was really just a class on how to use spreadsheets.

The problem with advocates like Dr. Jacobs and Sir Robinson is that they’re not teachers grounded in the reality of today’s educational politics.

We live in a testing society. Everyone now seems to agree that NCLB doesn’t work and needs to go away (here’s a NYTimes article on a House bill that won’t pass the Senate or be signed by the President, to essentially get rid of NCLB by shifting oversight to states from feds). But no one (in politics) wants to get rid of national testing entirely. Race to the Top has tests as part of its requirements. How else can we make sure that our kids are actually learning? Dr. Jacobs advocates for the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and some territories. And the standards sound great. But why, if NCLB isn’t working, should we increase (essentially) national standards further in hopes that our students achieve them when they aren’t meeting the current, lower ones? How do these new standards increase the 21st Century skills that Dr. Jacobs advocates, and how will they help students on the No.2-pencil tests that the law requires?

As a teacher, I love ideas to modernize my curriculum. I just want to make sure it’s worth my (and my students’) class time.

“Girl” Science

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I love xkcd!

How to get girls into science. Let’s see…

  • Make sure girls know that they’re different: check.
  • Make them feel like there must be a division from boys for a reason: check.
  • Only give them simple experiments that work 100% of the time, so that when they get to classroom situations (or real situations) that don’t, they’ll have unrealistic and demoralizing expectations: check.
  • And make sure their equipment is dumbed down (and pink!) so that girls will understand it: check.
  • Give them things to work on at home to “boost their logical skills”, like cooking and memorizing lists: check.
  • No, wait, let’s not really give them science: check.
  • And give them only truly exceptional role models as superheroes, so that they’ll feel inadequate unless they achieve Nobel-prize status: check.

Perfume and soap classes drive me nuts. They’re fine as classes, and there’s a lot of science behind cosmetics, but don’t bill them as science when the class consists of stirring random stuff together with no thought process as to why it turns out the way it does. Throw in a lab notebook of some sort, and I’ll be placated.

What’s wrong with encouraging everyone in science? Why the need to recruit boys and girls separately? Is there a reason to separate (i.e., make distinctions and put kids in gender-based groups) the sexes, especially at younger ages? There’s now evidence that if girls want to do science, they do it really well. I like to think that there’s no longer doubt (at least in most first-world countries) about whether girls can or should do science. But there still seems to be a lot of doubt about whether girls want to do science. I like this blog quite a bit (new experiments once or twice a week!), but why it’s billed as “for girls” doesn’t make any sense to me (although, they do only simple things and are mostly foolproof and have few suggestions for further study, to make it more, ya know, science-like instead of following directions).

As I’m not the most eloquent person in prose (but just read my lab reports!), here’s Zombie Marie Curie via xkcd to explain how just working on something will make you great.

I mean, I’m female and in science. My story is this: I was in school, minding my own business, when, out of the blue, a spectacular female rockstar scientist appeared and said, “YOU should do SCIENCE!” and I was inspired and I went and got through school, pushed my way through the male-dominated big, bad world and did science!

xkcd rocks!

But that’s not my story.

I had very little science in elementary school, like a lot of elementary schools. Teachers of young kids are just scared of somehow doing science wrong (and really afraid of math). I had strange science teachers in middle school for biology, earth science, and physical science (all male). I had a terrible bio teacher (female), a fantastic chemistry teacher (female), and a great and terrifying physics teacher (male) in high school. Most of the math teachers were male. In college, half of the chemistry department was female. Most of the math department was male, and the female teacher and I didn’t get along very well. The teachers I worked with most closely were female, but I didn’t consciously decide on female teachers… they also happened to be the younger and more in-touch people. I don’t know that I saw a science-female-role-model and thought, “gee, now I think it’s possible!” but I also don’t think I was ever discouraged in sciences.

So how do we, as a society, encourage girls and boys to go into science? AND, if they’re not interested, that’s okay! I’d rather have really enthusiastic people in the field they love than half-hearted drones working on paychecks.

Science Literacy

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Merriam-Webster says literacy is the “Ability to read and write. The term may also refer to familiarity with literature and to a basic level of education obtained through the written word.” The CIA Worldbook says that literacy is “the ability to read and write at a specified age.”

How well do you have to know a thing in order to know it? Is memorizing facts enough to be literate in a subject, or should you know how a thing works, or are both important?

The Christian Science Monitor has a 50-question science literacy test. But how many of these questions should you know?

How many questions did you answer correctly because of wording (for example, “What word, which comes from Ancient Greek words meaning “entire” and “Earth,” describes a supercontinent thought to have existed during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, about 250 million years ago?” could be known by the dates, or could be translated with the help of the “entire-earth” parts).

Is it important to know that quarks exist and are super-duper-tiny parts of matter, or is it important to remember, “What term for an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter gets its name from a line in James Joyce’s 1939 novel ‘Finnegans Wake’?”

Does it matter that Gregor Mendel worked with pea plants, or that he basically founded the whole field and study of genetics?

How about Newton’s Laws of Motion? Does it matter which law is which, or that you can think of them all in some order?

So then, what is a good scale to evaluate science literacy, or any level of literacy?