Archive for June, 2009

Active versus Passive

June 30, 2009

I’m not sure what to make of yesterday’s interaction between my learning behavior and my son’s learning behavior.

He’s taking an online computer game design class using the FANG Java engine. Overall its proving to be a good experience but he had run into a stumbling block yesterday. He entered a program and found a more cryptic error instead of the common syntax errors. He tried a few things but was obviously frustrated. We talked about the error which seemed to help but at one point he stated that he wanted to just post a question in the class’s online forum to ask if anyone else had run into that error and, if so, how had they solved it.

I found myself completely opposed to this idea. In many respects its a good idea; don’t waste time reinventing the wheel, use the communities knowledge, ask for help so that when the problem comes up again you’ll know what to do. Its even, as he quickly informed me, exactly what I told him was the best method of solving his earlier problem with the class (issues with the Wimba tool that the class uses). He went ahead and wrote the post but didn’t post it until after he tried some of the things that I and my wife suggested (comparing his code to another student’s code, Googling the error message, rechecking some things in the book and the online docs). He found the problem and never posted the message.

Is it just me and my old school thinking that just posting a question and waiting for someone else to answer is too passive? Sometimes it is the best strategy but in this case he succeeded on his own with just some encouragement and direction even if, in many respects, what he ended up doing was asking the “local web” of knowledge in the form of me and my wife. We were a little less direct then a classmate would have been since we mostly provided methods of resolving the problem not specific solutions but its unclear that the distinction (or the general usefulness of the methods) sunk in.



June 30, 2009

The AP workshop was good but not great. I had hoped for a little more focus on how to take an established AP program with modest success and move towards greater success. Its a tough move and one that might not even be fully teachable (I suspect it has almost as much to do with the culture of the school/community as it does with what the individual AP teacher does) but I could hope. In the end the workshop, the only one in the SE United States this summer I believe, had an overwhelming majority of new AP teachers (including some new physics teachers) so the focus was on content. Not bad, a week talking with other physics teachers can hardly be bad, but not perfect. One off hand comment did get me thinking about the difference between translucence and transparency.

I’m a pretty good logical, mathematical thinker. This, combined with a complete lack of hand eye coordination, has led me to prefer games that require thought whether its board games (war games in my youth, European board games now) or computer games (4x and other resource management games). Yet whenever I find that a game has been solved in my mind I lose interest in it. I find there needs to be some element of randomness through the use of hidden information (this is very big in computer games with fog of war), well balanced alternatives, or true chance (cards, dice, and the like) to keep me interested. Winning strategies must be translucent but not transparent.

Grading seems to be similar. I have yet to meet a high school teacher that really likes the current model of online gradebooks with constant parent and student access. Its just too transparent. Grades make both horrible carrots and horrible sticks. This is fairly well known among teachers, intuitively understood by students, and completely unknown among parents. Plus, as commonly done in the US, have a number of issues related to averaging, conflation of academic and behavioral issues, granularity, and time sequencing. The more that grades are transparent the more obvious these problem are as it becomes more difficult for a teacher to use professional judgment to correct for the flaws in traditional grading. If this issue moves us towards a more rational grading standard (probably some sort of mastery situation although I feel that assessing retention is a big stumbling block) then its all for the good. But until then I wish we could make grading a little more transparent through a little fog of war and some very well balanced options for showing competence. Lets leave the cards and dice out of things though.

ps Note that I am referring to overall grades – individual assignments should have fully transparent assessments.

AP Workshop

June 24, 2009

Nothing much right now. I’m at an AP workshop this week. I have lots of thoughts but I’ve been putting together specific things or just letting my son work on his Java programing in the evenings.

One random thought; why do people often prefer a video presentation to a similar live presentation? Is it that the video is seen, even in this age of YouTube, as an authoritative source?

Parkour in Physics

June 17, 2009

I’ve been fascinated with freerunning / parkour since I first heard about it. It look like a blast. As a 40+ year old guy I’m not going to do it but as a physics teacher I would love to use it in class. So I’m embedding a couple of videos below. What would you do with them in a classroom setting?

We could import into a video analysis program but unlike movies there really isn’t a question of did they fake it. Any thoughts?

BTW, if you haven’t seen the Danny MacAskill bicycle tricks video you should check it out (its all over the web as well as in my Great Videos page) for similar amazing body control and skill.

Salesmen for the win

June 16, 2009

This comes as no surprise. Humans seem, with a slightly heavy emphasis on the seem as I have some questions about the methods used in the study, to prefer a cocky, self confident answer to a nuanced answer that admits uncertainty. Combine that we the human trait of remembering winning predictions and forgetting mistaken ones and it becomes clear why its difficult to have any sort of real debate on polarizing issues. BTW, yes I realize that the “seems” in this paragraph completely killed any credibility that I might have. Such is life.

On the other hand no one in education talks about this. I think there has to be some effect on the individual classroom level. I’ve seen it myself when a student gives a prompt, confident, all-most right answer. Its very easy to fall into affirming their answer and then half a beat later having to qualify because their answer was after all not quite totally correct. Perhaps worse, even just taking a little longer to come up with a correct answer or “talking out” the answer would come across as less confident. Yet processing time and working through to an answer are things that teachers generally want to encourage especially in a more inquiry based classroom.

Does the suit make the man?

June 11, 2009

How many people in the US are employed in the classic salaryman position? Corporate types in a cubical or office (sales, marketing, management, IT, accounting, corporate lawyers, and whatever else I’m forgetting). I’ve run into a couple of online groups where the consensus seems to be the everyone lives this type of life. They might be urban hip or suburban unhip, they might be higher or lower on the corporate ladder, but they are all in the corporate game. The problem is that I don’t see this in the people around me.

Maybe its a perception thing. Does my job, high school science teaching, fall into that category? In general it has enough of the manifestations (controlled work environment and seemingly arbitrary or more or less meaningless job requirements being the big ones) that you could rewrite Dilbert in a school setting with very little effort. Yet I do not find it soul crushing. Certainly avoiding the horrible commute and thus gaining 1-2 hours per day is a big plus as is being around high school students (for the most part a pretty creative and energizing bunch of people).

I’ve always assumed that the difference was because I had the three things that seem most important to satisfaction with a job.

1. Creative control
2. Meaningful work
3. A feeling of competence

This article summarizes it as “A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world,” which seems to fit even though teaching is not a trade (although it is arguably a craft).

Black Coffee Slides – another thought on the Web 2.0 message

June 10, 2009

An interesting stack of slides is found here. Part of the interest is making meaning out of these slides without anything other then the slides themselves. I take the first few slides to be pointing out the great change taking place from the bad old days (black coffee, dittos, and filmstrips) to the wonderful present of ubiquitous frufru coffee drinks and Web2.0. I know I just let my opinion show with the frufru coffee shot; I’ll assume for the sake of argument that McDonald’s selling sugary coffee flavored drinks is a good thing. At one point some stats are shown.

online usage of kids

We’ve all seen such slides or videos before; according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project 64% of students are content creators online. Wow! Amazing! However my first reaction whenever I see such a number is to think “where would you have found this same creative energy if you had been able to find this data on the 1990’s, the 80’s, the 1950’s or any other decade?” People haven’t changed that much in 50 years; we are not all so much more creative then our grandparents. If 90% of everything is crap is the social web granting increased access to the 10% or did the 10% tend to make it out anyway?

How much of this content creation is even accessible to us as educators without turning it from play into work? Clearly we need to recognize that students, really everyone, have moved on into a new learning environment. Just as clearly it can be a good thing to make work and play coexist by acknowledging their creative efforts.

assess tech

Do we really need to assess the technology or can we just accept the technology and move on to assessing the learning?


June 8, 2009

This reference to lurkers and a mention of learning after college got me thinking about my own lurking status. As I mentioned much earlier in my blogging career (ie over a year ago or around 8 posts back) I have to wonder if it is a form of striving for perfection. In a casual conversation its easy to just add content but a blog is permanent; surely each post should be meaningful, correct, and complete (and if you slog through my blog it seems like it must be long). Unless and until one starts getting feedback on a blog there is no way to tell how well you are doing. Performance anxiety goes away when you know you can do something competently. Or maybe even when you know the level that you can perform at even if it isn’t competent.

But after I participate on the web I receive little to no feedback. In person I’d get verbal or non-verbal responses that I don’t get online. Either my comment is shouted into the void (responding to anything but a very recent post on most websites) or it is swallowed up in a crowd (posting on a recent post or comment in a popular blog) such that specific replies to me are lost in the general hubbub. Rarely does a comment hit the sweet spot of an active conversation, with a good interface so that I do not have to constantly search for the new comments (I hate you nested comments!), and a conversation decay time that fits with my web habits. Google Wave, which in some ways reminds me a lot of a good old threaded offline email and newsreader from the 1990’s, might help with some of this by bringing a forum like structure to website comments but I’m not sure it will be enough.

Timely and appropriate feedback seems to be the key. It can be critical (with some derivative thoughts here), supportive, or even just an acknowledgment of existence. Effective learning communities, whether face to face or virtual, manage to match the conversation time constant with the participants’ time constant while also providing feedback.

Which brings me right back to my summer job or redesigning how I give and assess HW. Why do I suddenly feel a little like James Burke?

Homework (What is it good for?)

June 6, 2009

Sorry about the horrible title but that seems to be a common thought right now. A good summary of the thought process can be found here (although its a slightly older post). There are many problems with homework;

– The originality and authorship of the work is very unclear.
– It is often too easy or too difficult for some students leading to frustration, wasted time, both, or just undone homework.
– The grades for homework combine academic grades (although at the point above notes they might not be correct grades if the work is too easy or too hard) and behavior grades (penalties or willingly or unwillingly not turning it in)
– Homework can be seen as a stand in for poor time management on the part of the teacher.

I’m going to ignore the final problem. It can be an issue and I think all teachers are guilty of it at some point but its not the biggest problem. Similarly, while I care about the first problem its not my concern right now. If I can get HW set up so that I can get meaningful academic grades out of it while giving the students meaningful practice I’ll be happy to seriously worry about academic honesty. BTW, one reason I can dismiss honesty so quickly is that I have already moved to a system with low value for HW, grading on attempt/completion, and recitation type student problem presentations on whiteboards. Its not perfect but it satisfies my desire to have them practice, the administrations desire to have multiple weekly grades, and my growing dissatisfaction of lumping behavior grades with academic grades. This way if a student gets too frustrated by the problems they can turn in their attempts and still get credit so copying isn’t required.

That still leaves two big issues for me; unwilling failures to turn in HW and the mismatch of HW with the practice needs of the students. I feel that a teacher has the right to assign work outside of class. But realistically there will be times that our students can not complete this work even thought they might want to. Unwilling failures to turn in HW are those times when the student lost it, was just involved in too much stuff, was occupied with other bigger issues, or was unable to complete the assignment for some other reason outside of their control. Going under the assumption that practice (ie HW) is generally a good thing I do not want to reward the students for not doing it but I also do not want their behavior issues (even those that are bad personal decisions) to doom them academically.

At this point i”m going to leave the last issue for another post.