Monday, November 24, 2014

A flat classroom

I want my classroom to be flat.

Not flat as in boring or bland, but flat in terms of hierarchy and structure. I want to treat my students as young adults, as equals, as human beings. We're on the same level. I am their coach, not their master.

Seth Godin talks about a big corporation where plant workers were forbidden from using the same bathroom the executives used. This sort of hierarchical caste structure kills motivation and misses out on the benefits of collaboration and the synergy that can result when everyone contributes as equals. What's true for corporations is true for any organization, even a classroom or school.

In recent years, I've been starting my courses in September by telling my students, "Please do not ask to go to the bathroom--just go." I think it's dehumanizing for young adults to have to ask permission to relieve themselves. I forgot to tell them that this year. We'll fix that this week.

I'm aiming to do less talking at them and more talking with them, more sitting by them and less presiding over them, more getting to know them and less getting them to do what I want.

This year, my goal is to stop trying to motivate my students with threats of consequences, or even with grades, and instead provide autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In other words, motivate them the way I would try to motivate adults-- the way I would like to be motivated.

A flat organization can't rely on threats and punishments. Those things are for  hierarchies, and they are destroyers of real, intrinsic motivation (and happiness).

A flat classroom is my goal because what works in life should work in school.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why it all starts with good standards

According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive, we humans are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

As I mentioned last week, this is why I'm drawn to the mastery model of education. If we give kids a chance to really master skills and concepts, that in and of itself will motivate them to do it.

But that assumes something else--that the objectives are clear. If they aren't clear on what they are expected to master, then I can't be surprised when they lack motivation to master it. As Chip and Dan Heath wrote in Switch, what looks like resistance is often lack of clarity.

And how much more powerful will this whole process be if the goals are not only clear, but meaningful to the students? Clear, meaningful standards will not only tap into our innate drive for mastery, but they can also tap into our desire for a purpose bigger than ourselves.

So this whole education thing should start with purpose. From these, we derive the "standards," which become the goals for mastery. Instead of starting with the biology textbook and trying to connect it once in a while with meaningful, big picture standards, we start with the big stuff, and use the text, vocab, and worksheets only if they prove useful.

Biology, after all, is supposed to be about living things. This has purpose written all over it: Improving human health and nutrition, conserving natural resources, dealing with climate change, curing diseases, improving fitness, and cleaning up the environment, for example. I can think of a slough of meaningful skills and concepts that would enable students to address these issues: use a microscope to study cells, making a bacteria culture, design an exercise experiment, analyze the impact of fossil fuels on the global carbon cycle, compare the virtues of various diets. These become the standards and indicators, and then the activities and assessments fall into place.

Choose meaningless, boring standards and the whole thing falls apart, and you're back to lecture, worksheet,  memorization, and detentions. Choose hard-hitting, real-world standards, and provide real opportunity (and time) for mastery, and natural human motivation kicks in.

Ideally, anyway.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Convo with my former self: Failing students

What follows is a brief conversation with my former self about teaching and students who fail.

Bill (2014): Your standard level biology class looked pretty good last year. Average around 75, a few As. But you also had a few Fs and Ds in that one class.

Bill (2010): Yeah, that one is tough. Many of those students are unmotivated or too distracted by social issues, iPhones, or video games. Some lack the self-discipline or perseverance to do their homework, lab reports, or study for exams. Maybe their histories or home lives are just not conducive to doing well in school. Some are carrying so much baggage that school was just too much.

Bill (2014): How do you feel about that? I mean, do you feel like it is your responsibility to help those kids--the ones who have Fs, Ds, and Cs, to do better? Do you feel like you've failed with those students?

Bill (2010): Well, of course it's my responsibility to teach all of my students, but I guess I don't feel like a failure because I did the best I could. At some point it's just the student's responsibility to put the effort in to learn.

Bill (2014): But if, as you mentioned, some of them either lack the skills or support to do that, then how can you expect them to?

Bill (2010): Well, what's my alternative? I'm supposed to teach biology, and some do want to learn. I don't have the time to teach study skills, self-control, and responsibility.

Bill (2014): So what's the point of "teaching" those struggling kids at all? What are we doing to these kids if we force them to attend four years of high school, knowing they will likely fail because of factors they can't control, and the whole time reinforcing those factors by repeatedly reminding them of their failure?

Bill (2010): Hopefully some will learn responsibility before it's too late, or discover their motivation. But I think that's a systemic problem. I'm just trying to do the best I can in a flawed system.

Bill (2014): So you're OK with that? Doing the best you can in a flawed system and watching several students per year continue their school-enhanced downward spiral, accelerated by your teaching?

Bill (2010): Not really, but what's my alternative?

Bill (2014): What if you made it a priority simply to help every one of them to succeed? What if you shifted your expectations from a 75% average and a few As and Fs to 100% mastery of essential skills? What if you shifted your priority from "teaching" a fixed set of concepts, skills and facts to actually helping your students succeed in life?

Bill (2010): What would that look like?

Bill (2014): That's a good question. It's not likely to be easy, but isn't it worth a try?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Math, music, and life

This stunning visual/auditory bombshell by Nigel John Stanford combines art, science, and electronic music in way I've never seen, and the quote midway through may not be convincing, but it is thought provoking:
"Everything owes its existence solely and completely to sound."

-Peter Guy Manners
I'm not inclined to believe it's all about sound, but I do wonder about waves, or more precisely, equations. Chladni plates have always been one of my favorite links between the world of mathematics and the physical world of the senses, and my absolute favorite demonstration to get students thinking about the connection. Students see the patterns of sand change abruptly as I increase the frequency, and I tell them that atoms and electrons are like this, and that it can all be described by equations.

I think it was Hawking who referred to the universe as a "dance of geometry," and I am inclined to believe that. But is everything really reducible to equations?  Isn't that a low view of life and love and being human?

Is it? I was listening to Protoculture's hard-hitting new track, Music is More Than Mathematics yesterday, and had this thought: Maybe the problem is that we have too low a view of math. Maybe we have too low a view of equations. We see them as hard and cold, inflexible and limited. But maybe we don't see how they can be or could become so much richer than we imagine, that they could contain all of the richness of life and the universe.

What if the richness of music, which after all is just sound waves, were our hint that it really is all about math, but that math is much more than what we think--much more than numbers and letters and symbols and drills and tables and lists? What if math is all about order and beauty and wonder and power and change and vibrancy and life and potential?

And as science and math progress, and our paradigms and pictures of the world shift again and again, and the richness of the picture deepens, and the equations shift from Ptolemy's to Newton's to Einstein's and Schrodinger's and Dirac's, the symphony of nature and life is not silenced, not even just magnified or amplified or clarified, but renewed, transformed, and reborn, every time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Encouragement from Seth Godin

“How was your day? If your answer was "fine," then I don't think you were leading.”

― Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us 

Well, that's a good sign, I guess. Maybe I am leading.

Godin said this in the midst of a powerhouse section on criticism. The gist of it is that if you're not being criticized, you're doing it wrong--you're probably not doing anything remarkable.

Make it your goal to do something worth criticizing--something remarkable enough, different enough, status quo-challenging enough, to be noticed by the critics.

I sometimes worry that I'm a change addict, a sort of compulsive status-quo challenger.

But Seth G. encourages me.

The status quo is boring, after all. Especially in education. :-)

Change for change's sake is fun (though maybe a bit stressful at times). But that's not (I hope) why (or the only reason) I'm all for it. We need it (as far as I can tell). Until every single student gets whatever they need to succeed, change is needed.

And after all, ours is not a static universe. Our species has had to change again and again and again. What makes us think we've arrived?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Grit and Mastery

What's more important, that my students learn skills like perseverance, self-control, and reflection, or that they learn the names and functions of the cell organelles? The answer seems obvious to me, which is why I am excited about the mastery model of education, which allows students as many attempts and as much time as they need to master a concept or skill.

It seems to me this is the ideal way to teach grit, and according to Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, grit is one of the keys to success.

It seems to me that just handing out zeros when students fail to turn work in, or Fs when they do poorly on tests, is not the best way to teach perseverance. Those are just punishments, and I don't think punishment is a very good teacher or motivator.

In fact, according to Daniel Pink, author of Drive, the best motivators of human beings are these:




Interesting how that works.

The way I'm seeing it right now, give a student the chance to master the material, and that in itself will motivate him or her. And in the process, how can he or she not learn perseverance? Isn't that how we all learn it, by trying again and again until we finally master a skill or achieve our goal? But how can you learn that if you are not given the chance.

And if sports are mastery based, why not academics? Michael Jordan said in his awesome Nike commercial, "I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Unfortunately, the way we run academics right now, it doesn't work that way. Fail again and again in school, and you just fail, period. Unless, that is, you are in a mastery-based  (or competency-based) system. As Forbes writer Michael Horn says, "A competency-based learning system on the other hand literally embeds grit—sticking with things until you master them—in its DNA."

No, my guess is many of us don't remember what the endoplasmic reticulum or lysosomes do for the cell (unless we are biology teachers or professional biologists), but we're all motivated by the desire for mastery of skills, and we all need grit every day.

Students are no different.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Change and Moodle at E. O.

Moodle. It evokes diverse reactions among the staff at E. O. Smith High School. As a learning management system and online educational platform, you can't beat it, for the price (it's open source and "free"). It's not the most user friendly system, and if all you want to do is post a few links or homework assignments online, it's sort of like buying a car factory when all you need is an occasional ride. But the adoption of Moodle at E. O. Smith is good practice for what's in store for all of us as we move up the exponential curve of change that is the 21st century.

A little history: In 2012, Jon Swanson and I received a grant from the E. O. Smith Foundation to run two online science enrichment courses over the summer. We set them up using the Moodle learning management system hosted at The next year, we both began using Moodle to help us "flip" our biology and chemistry classes. Promising results led E. O. Smith to adopt the Moodle platform for their official teacher webpages.

Today, most of our teachers are using E. O. Smith's Moodle site at least as an online point of reference for their classes, and a bunch of us are using it as an integral part of our courses. 14 teachers have had over 1,000 views or posts in the past month, and 5 courses have received over 3,800 posts/views over the same period. School-wide, our site had almost 150,000 views and posts during the month of October.

While I think this represents a serious accomplishment for E. O. Smith, and while I think the Moodle platform is essential for the kind of flipping I do in chemistry, and while I LOVE the open source model and ethic that Moodle embodies, I am under no illusions that it is the end of the story.

For one thing, Moodle pales in comparison to Google Drive for file sharing and collaboration. And more importantly, It will probably pale in comparison with the next innovation that may be right around the corner. That's the exponential nature of our era.

What will that new thing be? Google Classroom? Quite possibly.

Something we haven't even seen. Just as possible.

One thing's for sure. Moodle, and all of us, must adapt to survive.

One thing's for sure. Change is the only constant.

But let's just remember, it's not about change for the sake of change (as exciting and interesting) as that is for change-addicts like me. It's about continuous improvement. Online tech is useful only inasmuch as it is a facilitator of learning.

But its potential in that regard is amazing. So much so that its impact is likely to be exponential.