Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Content is not the point

Standing on a piece of Africa in CT
Controlled chaos is what it may look like (or worse). Or maybe sometimes it looks like laziness (God, I hate that word). Either way, it was my geology class. I call it differentiated, but really, it's an experiment--a dream, maybe. A new kind of school, maybe. A mistake, maybe, but I don't think so. And darn it, I'm proud of these kids.

They had lot's of choice, that's for sure. Every unit, an "assignment," with curriculum-dictated content-based objectives, but (and here's the key) open-ended products. Students can make presentations, write essays, build models, produce videos, posters, workout videos (more later). They make their own learning plans and set their own deadlines. (One got angry at me at first... about the no-deadlines part--wanted more structure. "That's fine, we can do that for you," I said.)

They need to get at least 60% on each assignment (graded by rubric). Otherwise, they are incomplete until they improve it (my attempt at the "mastery" model). I also tried to keep track of their progress on GLEAMS (social skills, goal-setting. etc.), but more on that in a later post.

But one day, earlier in the semester, I was doing some grading on a Saturday. I watched a video produced by a group of my students. They read from notes (*grits teeth*). At the end, they joked, laughed, swore... and forgot to edit it out. They learned nothing, I thought. What a disaster, I thought. My experiment is not going  well at all, I thought. I've failed, I thought. My ideas about learning are all wrong, I thought.

Then I thought... wait: but didn't plan it all by themselves? They may not have learned a ton, but then a again, didn't they? And do they learn more from the typical lecture? And they planned their own learning! They. Learned. By. Themselves. (With my guidance.) And what's more important? Filled-in-blanks-vocab or... this.

Since then, I went back and forth: Between...
  • worrying that we were not covering enough content... and enjoying myself,
  • worrying they are not working hard enough... and enjoying watching them learn,
  • focusing on "failures" (the guy who sleeps and "youtubes" away half the time, the boys who snapchat each other, the chronic absences of a couple of students, the cut-and-pasting from the web, the gaming of my system :-l )... and focusing on successes (the Earth cake, the awesome volcano art, the "Earth goes to the doctor" story, the innovative mountain-building models, the final project that nailed the reason gems are found in only certain places, the self-imposed deadlines being met, self-created goals being achieved, and the fact that they are learning to learn, the fact that they sat there every day (at least some of the time) planning, researching, producing. 
And that's what's important.

Content? Yeah... I think they're getting that too (as a bonus), but content is not the point. How many people know what a subduction zone is or can tell a metamorphic rock from an igneous rock. And really, what difference does that make in an age when we can Google the answer in a second. But what difference does it make if you know how to ask a question, find the answer, and learn?What difference does it make if you can set a goal, plan, and produce? All the difference.

And they did. Ten units. Ten projects. All individually planned & executed. I'm not bragging on me. I'm bragging on them.




Monday, May 12, 2014

What's in your bowl?

Bacon, chicken, & avocado salad (http://goo.gl/zBaLRZ)
If you're a recovering stress junkie, like me,  you're constantly playing crazy mental video games,  shooting down tasks before they reach you and it's game over. But how can you ever enjoy the present now, if you're always worried about the next now?

Imagine the present moment like a bowl of food. Future bowls are stretching off far into the distance. We can fill our "now" bowl with sweet things, fun, pleasure, socialization, rest, or we can fill it with hard things--studying, work, planning, and exercise. I tend to focus on worrying about future bowls, filling the now with work, so much so that I can't enjoy life. I don't want to focus too much on the present, because then I may not get as many future bowls.

But neither should I just fill it with stuff that is only "good for me"-- stuff that is only for the future. Why? Three reasons: 1) That future may never come. 2) How many missed "nows" until they outweigh the future "nows" I'm saving up for. 3) How will I ever learn to enjoy the "nows" of the future if I can't enjoy the "nows" of now.

No. What I want to do is fill my "now" bowl with a mixture of things I can enjoy now and things that are preparing me for the future. Maybe some kale, but also some bacon. Maybe some coconut milk, but also some honey. Maybe some carrots, but also some dark chocolate. Maybe one day I'll come up with an equation for what percentage of each moment should be spent enjoying and what percentage working on the next bowl. For now, I'll keep it simple: Next time I'm tempted to sacrifice now for tomorrow, stop and savor at least a bite of the present--every present moment, even in the midst of preparations for future bowls. Make sure every moment has a balance of hard and soft, rough and smooth, pushing myself and having compassion on myself, responsibility and relationships, protecting people and enjoying people, exhaustion and ecstasy, improvement and immersion, struggle and sweetness, justification and joy, roughage, risk, richness, rapture, relaxation and release.

Now, what's in my bowl? What's in yours? What's in ours?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The choice effect

Choice works. Case-in-point: Nursing homes. They can be dismal, depressing places. And I don't think it's because old people are dismal. I think they have awesome potential, just like all of us. I think it's because of how the places are run. As Robert Sapolsky writes, many nursing homes are "a world in which you are often isolated from the social network of a lifetime and in which you have little control over your daily activities, your finances, often your own body. A world of few outlets for frustration, in which you are often treated like a child."

But psychologists have found an interesting way to improve life for nursing home patients: Instead of doing everything for them, just give them more choice and responsibility. Some studies have tried this--control group gets same old stale, passive, totally controlled environment and plant-like existence. Treatment group gets responsibility (and freedom) to choose meals, sign up for activities, care for their own plants, etc. Treatment group gets more active, happier, and healthier. Mortality rates go down.

As I listened to Sapolsky's book, driving home from work, it struck me how much this sounds like school. High school students are a lot like nursing home patients--allowed very little choice and responsibility--"infantilized," as Sapolsky puts it. They are told what to do and how to do it all day long, while at school. I'll never forget one former student who remarked how strange it was to be a manager at Dunkin Donuts and then come to school and have to ask to use the bathroom. For many students, it's demoralizing. Prison-like. Depressing. Stifling. Growth-inhibiting.

We want them to become independent learners, right? We want them to become responsible global citizens, right? Then we give them no independence and dictate how and what they will learn and do every minute of every day? Fortunately, I think the tide is finally turning. For example, in order to score at the highest level of Charlotte Danielson's influential Framework for Teaching Evaluation, a teacher must design lessons where "Activities permit student choice."

Student independence, choice, and self-direction are even more prominent in the CT Common Core of Teaching rubric. And this all makes sense. For one thing, everyone is different, with different learning styles and interests, backgrounds, and levels of motivation and readiness. One-size-fits-all education can't work as well as individualized instruction. And secondly, we all learn best by doing. Giving students independence and responsibility teaches them.. well, independence and responsibility.

And lastly, choice is a lot more fun than dictum. I ran my biology class like this last year, giving students options for every assignment, and I'm building a geology course like this this year. So far, so good. More fun. More interest. Less stress for them. Less stress for me. Next step: Self-created learning plans. (Hopefully, more on that later.)

I've been telling my students for a few years now: "Never ask me to go to the bathroom--just go." This is symbolic of my intention to treat them like young adult human beings, with dignity, choices, freedom and responsibility. With a a good dose of training and guidance, maybe soon I can say to them: "Don't ask me what to do next," because they will have planned it themselves, like Starr Sackstein's students.

I'm willing to bet, with each increment of increased choice, there will be increased interest and happiness. Imagine that: a school full of happier, healthier, motivated, self-directed teens. A dream? Maybe.

Less likely than a nursing home full of happy patients? I don't think so.









Sunday, January 5, 2014

My Teaching Goals--Every Day


I asked him what it was like at his elite arts college. He had taken my AP chemistry class a few years before. He said college was "Less like a prison and more like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, where everyone walks around singing all the time."

It's that prison-ness, that same-ness and rote-ness and (too-often) uselessness of secondary ed that I want to get away from. And it's that Willy-Wonka-ness I'm going for.

So I needed a memory device, a tool to help keep me out of the rut of routine learning, the creativity-killing lecture-worksheet-quiz-repeat that is the path of least resistance I slip into more than I'd like to admit. I needed something to help me remember the techniques that work and the outcomes that are really important, so I can do them all every day. It is also something that will help me cover the bases in the Danielson Rubric (yes, kids, we have rubrics, too), which, it just so happens, is a pretty good guide to the kind of teacher I want to be.

So I started by asking myself, what do I really want my students to get out of school?  Then I tried to make an acrostic. GLEAMS is what I came up with. Sorry, it's a bit cheesy, but I think it kind of fits. And here's what it stands for:

Give globally - because that’s how to be happy, and so it's a great motivator. I want to encourage and help my students to make real, authentic contributions to people all over the world.

Learn to learn - because if students learn to be expert self-teachers, then they won’t need me anymore, and there will be no limit to what they can accomplish. We’ll start by training to ask 4 questions indicated by the sub-acrostic: WWHH--Why learn? What will I learn? How will I learn it? How will I use what I have learned?

Examine everything - because as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Only through constant evaluation and questioning of everything can we keep improving. This includes thinking critically about our own conceptions, our teachers' ideas, and the ideas of authority figures of all kinds. It includes honestly evaluating our own and others’ work and being open to admitting we are wrong and open to change. This is a lesson I learned too late in life from my son, who as a young teenager, refused to let me skirt around his tough questions.

Aim at (self-)actualization - because this is our highest need in life--to realize and develop our personal potential, purpose and fulfilment. This will differ for each of us, but it is within the reach of each one us. This involves setting the intermediate goals that will get us there, including learning goals for today.

Maximize your mindset - because only by having a growth mindset can we achieve self-actualization. Carol Dweck's book had a big impact on my thinking here, and I want to pass that on to my students every day. Brains can be trained and strengthened. Their growing, changing plastic, not stone. Failure is just the by-product of pushing the envelope.

Synergize socially - because only through social collaboration can we achieve all of the above. As social animals, we can't reach out true potential for achievement and happiness without others. Ideas having sex, as Matt Ridley so powerfully put it, is what drives human progress. And Hargreaves and Fullan have convinced me that  collaboration is absolutely central to effective teaching and learning.

It'll probably be a while before I can consistently work GLEAMS into every lesson, but that's the idea, and I think it is also scalable. In other words, A large scale global contribution project (G), like creating a wiki, could be spread over several days, and might include L, E, A, M, and S components, but I'm still working this out.

Nothing really new here, I know, but I need to boil things down for myself. Humans are so powerful, but so complicated, and there's so much going on in and around the classroom (and I'm so scatter-brained sometimes) that it's easy to lose track of what's really important. It's easier to allow myself to get sucked into playing prison-guard-professor than to empower future magical-chocolate-factory-designer-world-changers. But that kind of stagnation and incompetence is not where I want to be.

I know there's a better way for me to contribute globally (G).

I know how to learn these techniques (L).

I see that I am not there yet (E), but I'm aiming for self-actualization (A).

I'm not afraid of failure (M), and I can collaborate with colleagues and students to improve (S), so what am I waiting for?


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Hacking education

What would it mean to hack education? According to the "official"  hacker jargon file, a hacker* is someone who:
  • enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities
  • programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) 
  • is an expert or enthusiast of any kind
  • is one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. 
  • believes that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.
So, hacking can be can be summed up like this: Making things better by challenging the status quo and breaking through barriers for the sheer joy of it. And though I was inspired by Code.org's phenomenal trailer to learn some Python, I'm not looking to become a computer programmer. Instead, I want to hack education. According to philosopher Pekka Himanen, this hacker ethic applies outside the bounds of programming.

Of course, we've all seen the power of the hacker ethic in the world of computers. The original hackers included the likes of Tim Berners-Lee (a key architect of the internet), Marc Andreessen (Netscape), Steve Wozniak (Apple), and Linus Torvalds (Linux). Their philosophy has been the driving force behind innovations like the personal computer, Linux, Ubuntu, Wikipedia, and the internet itself (it is basically the the same philosophy that made science so powerful).

Many professors, teachers and administrators have always operated this way. I think of closet eduhackers like Ian Guch, who posts a profusion of chemistry worksheets and an online textbook for free use at his Cavalcade o' Chemistry website. I think of a former colleague of mine, Nicole Waicunas, who's passion for helping students and outside-the-box style is inspiring. And I think of Salman Khan and his game-changing website. Whether in their enthusiasm and passion, their out-of-the-box, unorthodox creativity, or their openness and generosity, they embody the hacker ethic. And then there are the big names, like Ken Robinson, Pekka Himanen, Pasi Sahlberg, and Andy Hargreaves--people trying to hack the whole system. And why not? Isn't that what the hacker ethic is all about--improving the system for the sheer joy of doing so for the benefit of all? "School" is just a system, not unlike a computer program--a system with all sorts of rules and procedures and traditions and habits and red tape and hierarchies and deeply ingrained beliefs.

We can argue about how well the system is doing, but one thing we can't argue about is this: it can be improved. In fact, it's due for a radical rewriting of the software. The hierarchical, factory model is woefully inadequate (if it ever was adequate) in today's headlong, digital, global, exponentially changing, "whitewater world." The hacker ethic demands that the educational system be hacked, and hackers may even have provided us with a model for the change.

The powerful open source model that hackers employ means anyone can tinker with the "code" and submit their improvements to the larger group. If people like it, it gets incorporated into the system. Interestingly, it implies  decentralized, rather than hierarchical organization, and empowers each individual equally. It's based on real, voluntary, social cooperation. Hacking education according to this model will mean making education more open, efficient, personalized, and decentralized. It will mean taking the Finnish Model and ideas like Elmore's distributed leadership model  further, replacing traditional hierarchies of State-district-school-administration-teacher with networks of teachers, administrators, students, parents, and schools. 

And technology will play a central role. I'm not just talking about online learning, MOOCs, open courses, Moodle (my favorite), Edmodo (another cool tool), BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies and flipped classrooms, as cool and equalizing as they are. I'm thinking of paradigm shifts in  the whole organization of the system, possibly through P2P (peer-to-peer) technologies that could help give every student, teacher, parent, and community member a voice and contribution to the whole. I'm thinking of something more sophisticated than a system of open observation, communication, feedback and voting, though that would be a good start.

 John Robb sees the same thing happening to government. In a recent interview with the Foundation for Economic Education, he said, "The technology is changing, and so will the methods of organizing life. Until recently, we've relied on 'bureaucracy' and 'markets' to manage and allocate resources (more or less depending on the ideology employed)." But, he added, "Our inability to go beyond markets and bureaucracy is stopping us from actually entering an information/creative economy that is as qualitatively better as democratic capitalism was an improvement over feudal agrarianism." How will this happen? "One of the 'new' organizational methods we see will likely be based on P2P (think in terms of BitTorrent and BitCoin)."

I'm convinced that the more power and autonomy you give to individuals, the more their potential will be released. But I'm also convinced that the more people cooperate, the more their potential will be enhanced. The hacker model does both, and the application of the hacker model to education it could go even further.  In his book, Pekka Himanen envisions schools entirely based on the open-source model of computer programming: 

We could also use this idea to create a generalized Net Academy, in which all study materials would be free for use, critique, and development by everyone. By improving existing material in new directions, the network would continuously produce better resources for the study of the subjects at hand. Members of the network would be driven by their passions for various subjects and by the peer recognition for their contributions.

Logically, the continued expansion and development of this material, as well as the discussion and examination of it, would also have to be the net Academy's only way to grant study credits; and, true to the spirit, the highest credits should be given for those accomplishments that prove the most valuable to the entire learning community...

In the Net Academy, every learning event would permanently enrich all other learners. Alone or in the company of others, the learner would add something to the shared material.

Whether it will be Himanen's model or something else, no one can tell. That's the nature of paradigm shifts. But one thing's for sure, it will change--and for the better. And wherever it leads, I want to go there, for the pure joy of the challenge and creative work, and the reward of seeing it improve and seeing students' lives improved. It's one of the benefits of living in a country (and soon, a world) where scarcity is giving way to abundance, and we sit atop Maslow's pyramid, with what earlier generations would have called superpowers, with the opportunity to use our minds and efforts to creatively hack life for our mutual benefit. And what better target for hacking than education. We all, each and every human being, have such tremendous and fascinating potential, and education is about unlocking that potential.



*A hacker is not to be confused with a computer cracker ("a malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around"), but the kind of hacker who creates for the sheer joy of seeing people benefit from her work.  





Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bitcoin for teens

Ever heard of bitcoin? It's the hip cryptocurrency that made headlines earlier this year when it's value jumped from $30 per BTC to $230 in about two months, before it crashed abruptly to $60 (as I write this it's at $116). Its price continues to be volatile, but that's no reason to shun it, especially for teenagers. It's their escape from financial adolescence.

Read more

Monday, March 4, 2013

Borg in the classroom

Reading Ray Kurzweil's book, The Singularity in Near, has been getting me thinking about how I can help my students go Borg--build technology into their lives, so they can be competitive in the marketplace of the future. I've been wondering why we don't take advantage of all the tools technology has to offer--why we keep using old methods when newer, faster ones could free us to pursue higher goals. So this past week I tried a little activity designed to whet their appetites and test my ideas about technology. I called it a Grok vs. Borg race, and the outcome was exciting.

I recently showed my students some online resources, like WolframAlpha.com, that can balance equations and calculate masses of compounds--stuff they normally do with archaic tools like periodic tables and TI-83 calculators. Then I gave them a worksheet of chemical calculations--stoichiometry, to be exact, for all you chemists out there (and for those of you who have not blocked out your high school experience). I told them it was a "Grok vs. Borg" race ("Grok" being the name of Mark Sisson's hypothetical caveman). The worksheet is below. A handful of students with iPads or smartphones chose the "Borg" group. The rest of the class played the role of themselves--the traditional (caveman) chemistry students.

Though there was a bit of a learning curve for "the Borg" as they found their way around the websites, they edged out the cavemen in my first class, and won a decisive victory in the next. It was interesting to see the excitement and interest the activity generated, especially in the Borg team. The look on the winning student's face was precious: it was a look of confidence, power, and competence.

So what's my point? My point is resistance is futile. We all had better assimilate technology or be assimilated by it. Sure, students need a basic understanding of the principles behind the calculations, just like we (hopefully) all understand what a fraction means before we use a calculator for division, but it's time we moved on and took advantage of new tools, so we can go further. Just as Newton saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants, we expand human capability when we allow technology to replace old tasks so we can focus on new ones.

And actually, I'm not convinced we need the basic understanding before we can move on to the more advanced. First, much of the most currently important chemistry (quantum mechanics, for example) is independent of the bulk of our high school chemistry curriculum. To tell you the truth, I sometimes feel as if I'm teaching some ancient, lost (and obsolete) art. Secondly, it is often possible to "run before we can walk." I learned to speak long before I learned how to conjugate verbs, and I can use the internet without being able to build my own search engine (though I do want to learn that). There's no reason one of my students couldn't solve some great future problem in chemistry without ever knowing how to use the factor-label method.

And make no mistake about it: The factor label method will soon go way of the slide rule, and stoichiometry will find it's place among the lost arts of double-entry bookkeeping and celestial navigation. Maybe we'll do it just for fun, but we won't need to. And that means we'll have more time and energy to do something better--more exciting.And that's what tools do for us: they enable us to do things we couldn't do before, or do them better than before. They empower us.


And they can empower kids. What if a tech tool could enable a student who couldn't do math to become a great scientist? What if the poor reader could master Shakespeare and Dostoevsky? What if the blind could see and the lame walk? This is the promise and purpose of technology. And how better to stay relevant to these young people than to help them augment their abilities with cutting edge exciting technologies so they can study the really exciting things. They know that much of what they learn at school is decades out of date--that they're like cavechildren being forced to learn the finer points of stonecraft while outside their windows the iron forge glows. It's time we let them throw out their stone tools for iron, their pencils for keyboards, and their calculators and textbooks for whatever they can find. And then watch them soar.




Here's the worksheet:




Stoichiometry Race

Group A can use calculator, periodic table, notes, textbook, pencil, and paper. 
Group B can use all of the above, plus the internet, including websites such as Google and:




Consider the following reaction in which the chemical weapon, phosgene, reacts with ammonia:
COCl2 +     NH3   CO(NH2)2 +   NH4Cl

1. Balance it.
2. How many moles of phosgene are required to react with 0.33 moles of ammonia?
3. How many g of urea (CO(NH2)2 ) are produced when 0.100 g of phosgene reacts?
4. What is the percent composition of phosgene?


Consider the following reaction:
C2H6O2   +   O2    CO2 +   H2O

5. Balance it.
6. How many moles of O2 are required to burn 0.25 moles of ethylene glycol (C2H6O2)?
7. How many g of CO2 are produced when 1,000.0 g of ethylene glycol is burned?
8. What is the empirical (simplest) formula for ethylene glycol?
9. What is ethylene glycol used for?