30 July 2010

That's What I Want

I'm hoping that you can help me shape a hapless mass of an idea into a shiny one. When it comes to good ideas, they do not spring fully-formed from my head. Science Goddess I may be---Zeus I am not. And I need an Athena.

Amongst all of the other projects I am working on at the moment is the need to put together a professional development package about the edtech assessments. I would like to have a 1-hour option and a 3-hour option. Those who deliver the PD can choose whatever fits the time budget they've been provided.

Since the assessments will come in a variety of flavours (grade levels, subject areas...), the PD needs to be generic/flexible/adaptable. I'm looking for a single base: a problem-based learning experience that would be engaging to most adults. The problem needs to be "sitcom-sized" (i.e. slightly messy, but solvable in less than 30 minutes) for the 1-hour session, but could be extended for the 3-hour.

I also don't want to make the PD dependent upon access---access to a computer lab, mobile lab, internet, multiple power outlets, etc. As soon as it becomes stuff-heavy, fewer schools can use it and/or fewer teachers will believe that the information will translate to the classroom. With this in mind, I want the tech part to be built around cell phones/text messaging. Yes, I know that not every educator has a cell phone...and for those who do, not all use text messaging. But I think it's the best solution for now: tech that nearly everyone will have with them and doesn't need any special support in terms of where the PD takes place (unless in a "shielded" or remote location).

I envision the PD working this way: presenter poses a problem that the group can solve. Participants text message data. Data aggregated and collected on a website is communicated back to the group. Small group work to propose various solutions. Along the way, the presenter models the sorts of things that are found in the edtech assessments with a review of the components with the group following the cell phone activity. For the 3-hour jaunt, there would also be an opportunity to talk policy.

I can see in my head how to fit all the pieces together, but I am missing the most important part: the hook...the question...the problem that drives the entire inquiry for adults. I have a lot of blah ideas. What if participants texted one piece of personal data: e.g. home address, age, type of vehicle, or whatever. What would the question be to kick things off? What meaningful experience could we create from the data---map? visualization?

Athena---are you out there?

29 July 2010

Need to Know Basis

I was recently helping someone with a few molecular biology concepts. Aerobic respiration? Um, sure, why not. I haven't had to access that particular information since I taught AP Bio 5 years ago---especially at the level of detail this person needed help with. I was surprised at how much remained nestled amongst my neurons.

The thing is, I "learned" about glycolysis-Krebs cycle-electron transport chain of respiration more than once during my academic career. I have my high school and college biology notebooks---I can see that cellular respiration was part of the curriculum. But until I had to teach that topic about 10 years ago, I knew nothing about it. I would have sworn to you that I had never heard of it...and yet, there is evidence tucked away on paper that on more than one occasion, the information had been taught to me.

This is not going to be a post about the difference between "teaching" and "learning," but a reminder to you to go and comment on the draft Science Framework (last day for comment is Monday, August 2). What's the connection to the aerobic respiration? This:


I mentioned in my initial observations of the Framework that "learning progressions" like the one pictured above are going to set up some awful science teaching.

My problem is not with how they're set up. As concepts go, I think there's a nice flow here. Most of the information is developmentally appropriate and there is a nice connection from one grade band to the next. My real beef is that there doesn't appear to have been any consideration as to whether or not this information is truly critical for everyone to know---instead, there are nearly 1000 ideas stuffed into the document. A few will stick in a student's head...and most will not. Do we really want to take a chance on that? If you had approximately 2 weeks to devote to helping all students master the content at a particular grade band level---could you do it? And do it will enough so that they would be able to draw from that basis a few years later when the next 2-week shot to extend the learning would arrive?

As I think about the person I was tutoring last week, much of what we talked about could be situated in the grades 9 - 12 box in the graphic above. And yet here was a person, well into their 40's, going into the medical field, and who had lived their life quite well without those concepts (and will probably only remember them for as long as the test). In fact, I could say the same for myself based on how many times I was faced with the content before it stuck.

It's not that the topics in that box aren't fascinating. If you can wrap your mind around what is happening at a molecular level, you understand what it is that's being done with the oxygen you take in with every breath (and why you die without it). You can explain why hibernating animals don't starve to death during those sleepy months. You realize that you are made of materials formed by stars and you are just recycling this "dust" that was used by living things for billions of years before you---and you will give it to others. There are all sorts of insights to nature and physiology that make for great little a-ha's. But I have to admit that they are not necessary in order to be a functional adult.

So what is? When you look at the graphic, what do you see that is absolutely essential for everyone to understand? (Remember, this is only one of 49 such graphics.) Time is ticking. Be sure to tell the National Academies before Monday what they need to know.

24 July 2010

The Long and Winding Road

More and more these days, I find myself looking at adults and thinking about what they were like as high school kids. That "oral processor" in the meeting? I would definitely have seated her teenage self somewhere that others who needed quiet space for concentration would have minimal contact---as well as given her opportunities to spew. The leader who can't seem to keep his foot out of his mouth? I would have probably encouraged him to be an exchange student, peace corps volunteer, or have another experience that would put him into other shoes and help him gain perspective. I have written about this before, but I find my mind wandering that direction frequently these days. Perhaps it represents my thinking about my days in the classroom and whether or not my career will take me back there.

I can also think of experiences I've had watching young students (5 and 6 years old) and thinking about their future school selves. Which ones seemed likely to try out for a certain sport or cheerleading? Which were already showing a propensity toward music or figure drawing or math? At that age, we think we can be anything while learning about everything. Oddly enough, I don't remember looking at any of these children and envisioning their lives beyond adolescence. I might have asked them what they wanted to do when they grew up, but that was as far as any sort of career counseling on my part went.

Every once in awhile, a conversation will pop up as to whether or not being a teacher is a "calling." Personally, I don't believe it is. Education is not a religion. We don't talk about people being "called" to drive a garbage truck, cut grass, or write computer code. All of us learn to shape and improve our abilities. Where our careers take us is the intersection of many conditions: level of education, personal interests, family needs, talent, and opportunity. What I've seen in youngsters and oldsters as I imagine then at different points in their lives is also a product of these things. It's not destiny---just patterns that I am becoming more familiar with as I age. More and more, I'm viewing teaching as a journey, not a destination.

Update: About a week after I posted this, there was an article about how personality sets up by first grade and that report card comments are good predictors of adult characteristics. Maybe I wasn't so far off with this post.

20 July 2010

From Standards to Assessment, Part III: Pilot to Test

Assuming that our adolescent Items (see Parts I and II) are ready for their debut, they will make their way onto a pilot test. Because the items target the same standard, they would not appear on the same test. If the pilot is embedded with a regular test, the items would be left off of any test that already had a similar "live" item. Kids complete the test and their answers are scored.

For Item One, scoring is simple:
1. Which energy transformation creates food for a plant?
a. light to heat
b. light to chemical
c. chemical to kinetic
d. chemical to light

There is only one correct answer (b). We just have to track data on how many students answer it correctly (as well as how many choose each of the other answers). We will also want to know something about the students who answered correctly---did they get credit for most of their answers on the whole test...or not?

Thing Two, however, has a different row to hoe:

2. Plants transform light energy into ________.

We know from the standard that students might put sugars, food, or chemical energy into the blank. But are there other possibilities? Sure. I can imagine that some students might put starches, carbohydrates, or glucose. Shouldn't those also receive credit? The thing is, there will be all sorts of right answers that were unanticipated. What if a student writes organic compounds? Would you accept that? How about nutrients or nutrition? This is why open-ended items go through rangefinding. Although there may be a pre-established rubric or bank of answers, the simple fact is that an item in the "wild" never behaves like you think it will. While rangefinding will help determine what is acceptable as answers, it is still only a sample. When items are formally scored, all sorts of little oddities will pop up and individual decisions will be made.

After pilot testing, rangefinding, and scoring, the data from the items are then evaluated. Again, an item can die anytime during this process, and some items meet their maker here. For example, an item could be well-written and straightforward to score (e.g. multiple choice), but few kids are able to answer it correctly. There is nothing wrong with having "difficult" items in the bank, but they need to be carefully considered. An item that represents important content might remain in the bank while something more obscure might get the boot. Various pieces of psychometric data are collected and banked with the item.

Assuming the items described above survive all of that process, they go into the real Item Bank and become live items eligible to be placed on a test and count toward a student's score. (Our Bill has finally become a Law!) They await their turn in the Item Bank, only to be plucked if their psychometric data matches the needs of the test: content, difficulty, type (multiple choice, open-ended), point value. Some items make it this far and never see the light of day. Others are used a few times and then retired. Data from first use is compared to pilot data. Student samples from open-ended items get a second look.

So there you have it. A journey from a standard to a real test item. Depending upon the test and development needs, the process can take a few months to a couple of years. It's far more intensive and rigorous than anything you will find in a classroom; however, we need to be careful about comparing the two arenas. Just because the items on a teacher developed test do not undergo the validity measures those on a standardized test endure does not make them less useful. Keep in mind that classroom assessment is more about reliability in the form of multiple measures and a variety of data about student performance against a particular standard. Teachers have so much more to focus on as opposed to rigorous item development for classroom use. I've heard some of the assessment experts at conferences state that they don't feel that this sort of thing is appropriate for the classroom (or PLCs) simply because they will never have the sample sizes necessary to get the psychometrics right. This does not give teachers free reign to give crappy tests---it just means we shouldn't get obsessive about individual items.

And just as we should not get all Judgey McJudgerson about classroom assessment, the same should be true for large-scale. It's fair to say that there are only a few items per test and usually one for each standard that is measured on a given assessment---but this doesn't make the test "bad" or the information useless. They're great tools. We may not like the way the results get used, but I can think of plenty of classroom examples where the information from assessments was used poorly, too. In the end, we all have to be a little smarter about what, how, and why we ask in terms of student performance at all levels.

19 July 2010

From Standards to Assessment, Part II: Item Development

When we last saw our heros, Items One and Two, they were newly birthed and in need of some parenting. As a classroom teacher writing a test, this would likely be the end of the road for these items---a little wordsmithing and then it's off to the xerox. But standardized test items have a far different fate.

Let's get back to Item One:
1. Which energy transformation results in food for a plant?
a.  light to heat
b. chemical to kinetic
c. kinetic to sound
d. light to chemical

It needs some guidance. If we're going to leave it in this sort of format, the answer choices have to be reworked. We have one pair that starts with "light," so we need another pair. Why? Because when a student sees two answers that begin the same, there is an automatic assumption that the answer must be one of them. We've taken what should be a knowledge-based question and made it answerable by using a basic test-taking strategy. So, let's rewrite the answer choice currently in position "c," then put the pairs together. The item stem could also be wordsmithed a bit. How about Which energy transformation creates food for a plant? Let's keep it simple.
1. Which energy transformation creates food for a plant?
a. light to heat
b. light to chemical
c. chemical to kinetic
d. chemical to light


Much better. As items go, this one has a low cognitive demand. Most states use Webb's Depth of Knowledge to categorize items---not Bloom's Taxonomy. Why? Because Webb's version is meant to distinguish among tasks. Bloom did not design his system as a hierarchy---it's not meant to be used to look at difficulty and rigor. So, as we look at the Item One, we would categorize it as having a cognitive complexity equivalent to Level One. The kid could get by answering this using basic recall. Could we increase the cognitive demand? Sure. Just flip around the construction---ask Where could the transformation of light to chemical energy occur? and then carefully pick our answer choices. In that case, a student has to know the transformations which could happen for each of the selections as well as what happens in a plant, then put the information together. However, for the purposes of these posts, we'll stick with what we see above.

Let's not forget Item Two:
2. Plants transform light energy into ________.

An item writer has the responsibility to list as many terms as possible that a student might put in the blank which could be correct, such as "sugar" or "food."

At this point, the items enter a deeper development process. Other item writers will provide feedback. Content specialists will fuss with it. The items will be pooled together with other items and go to a committee which will review them again for content and structure. An item can "die" at any point along the way. Perhaps there are already plenty of items for that standard. Maybe some items are better constructed. It could be that the cognitive demand doesn't suit the needs of the test bank. Sometimes, there is a turd that you can't polish, no matter how hard you try. Just like how a Bill has a journey to become a Law, our lowly items have a number of events to navigate.

Assuming that these two items make it through the weeks of revision and review, they go into a provisional test bank and await their fate in a pilot process. More on that in Part III.

18 July 2010

From Standards to Assessment, Part I: Item Writing

If you remember the 70's, then you probably remember Schoolhouse Rock. Conjunction Junction, Three Is a Magic Number, and Interplanet Janet were part of my Saturday mornings as a child. But one of these more than any other has stuck out in my mind as an adult: I'm Just a Bill.



There are two main reasons this particular item continues to haunt my existence. One is simply its face value during this bureaucratic phase of my career. My job exists because of a bill that became law. Ditto for the funding used to bring my working group together. Meetings I attended last month were rank with discussions about federal bills and laws. Education is much more politicized now than when I began teaching, and not just because of my change in jobs. At all levels, public policy is having a greater impact on the classroom.

But my second reason for thinking about the journey of Bill is more metaphorical: how a standard becomes a test item. Because it is a process that typically takes place behind closed doors and among disconnected groups of people, there continues to be a lot of bad information out there about how standardized tests get built. With the advent of new national standards and continued debate about student achievement, it seems like now is a good time to lay out all the pieces. This series of posts is not meant to explore the most contentious part of standardized testing (i.e. what the results are used for)---just how a standard becomes an item. Like Bill to Law, it's a helluva journey.

It all begins with standards. It is important to have a clear target. Here is a non-example, from the Washington State science standards:


What's wrong with this standard? Look at the Performance Expectation on the right. Seriously--can you imagine asking a kid to do this? How would you score it? What we'd be asking for is something akin to this this photo from NASA showing the view of Earth from Mars:


And yet, item writers are stuck with the standards they are given. Let's assume you have something decent to work with. For the purposes of this and upcoming posts, I'm going to pull something from the draft Science Framework---not because I'm in love with them (I'm not), but because it's a common point for us to use. I'm picking one of the targets listed under Life Science 1C for grades 6 - 8: Plants use the energy from light to make sugars (food) from carbon dioxide and water. This process transforms light energy from the sun into chemical energy.

Lots of possibilities here for a test item. We could provide a selection of energy transformations (light to heat, light to chemical, chemical to kinetic, kinetic to sound...) and ask the student to select the one represented by a diagram and/or description of a relationship between sun and plant. We could choose a similar style question, but leave it open and ask students to fill in a response. Or maybe we dig deeper and ask students about what is entering the plant and what is produced. At this point, things are not much different than what a teacher might do to develop a classroom test item.

But there are other things hidden within this standard. Can an item writer use the word "photosynthesis"? Nope. In fact, when you go back and look at this strand in the standards, the term photosynthesis isn't used until grades 9 - 12. We also can't ask students where the energy transformation occurs. A classroom teacher would likely have talked about leaves (or other green parts of the plant)---maybe even chlorophyll. An item writer can't go there with this standard. It's simply about the transformation itself.

To end Part I, I'll leave you with a couple of items. Number One is weak so that we have something to chew on in later posts. Number Two will also come back to haunt us, but for different reasons. Feel free to suggest improvements or additional questions in the comments and stay tuned for Part II (and III). We've only just begun...
1. Which energy transformation results in food for a plant?
a. light to heat
b. chemical to kinetic
c. kinetic to sound
d. light to chemical

2. Plants transform light energy into ________.

15 July 2010

Bigger Isn't Always Better

Have you seen the draft Science Standards Framework? In a move very similar to the Common Core Standards for Math and English-Language Arts, "new" national standards for science are in development. The first public draft was released on Monday. All 190 pages of it. Public comment will be accepted through August 2, so if you're so inclined, have a look at the whole document and put your $.02 cents in via the survey. This document will likely drive K-12 science education for many years to come (previous version of national science standards is about 15 years old). It is critical for anyone who has an interest in science in the US to review and comment. Visit the main site for more information.

I need to spend more time with the document, but here are my preliminary observations...

The Introduction starts off with some background on their (National Academies of Science Board of Science Education) vision. It sounds promising:

This framework is an attempt to move science education toward a more coherent vision in three ways. First, it focuses on a limited number of core ideas in science and engineering both within and across the disciplines. The committee made this choice to avoid shallow coverage of a large number of topics and to allow more time for teachers and students to explore each idea in greater depth. Reduction of the sheer sum of details to be mastered gives time for students to engage in scientific investigations and argumentation and to achieve depth of understanding of the material that is included.

It has long been my dream that every content area  identify what is truly essential for students to know and be able to do---not a wishlist of 1001 things kids should regurgitate. Maybe this time, someone will finally show some leadership?

Later in the first chapter, we get to a list of the Core Ideas. This is not so different from other standards that are out there, but the format is new: They take the form of essential (my word, not theirs) questions. I kinda like this. So, for the Life Sciences, we have
  1. How do living things do what they need to do so they can live, grow, and reproduce?
  2. How are characteristics of one generation of organisms passed to the next and what are the consequences regarding inheritance and variation across generations?
  3. How and why do organisms interact with other organisms and their environment? What happens to ecosystems as a result of these interactions?
  4. How can we explain the many different kinds of plants, animals, and microorganisms? Why are there are so many similarities among organisms? More generally, how can the diversity within this unity be explained? What is the relationship between biodiversity and humans?
Each one of those questions has sub-questions. As a teacher, I can see how the questions would be very helpful for framing curriculum development and discussions. Questions engender a sense of wonder. They invite.

And then, there is a metric assload of text to read. I skimmed most of it, slowing down when I got to Chapter 5 and the examples of "Practices for Science Classrooms." Think of this section as a description of skills for investigation. No grade level sorts of goals or standards here, just things that look like this:


I'm not sure if this is more or less helpful than grade-level guidance. I'm also not sure about the term "competent." However, I might be willing to roll with these. I think for secondary students, they're nice descriptors. For elementary, they're too depressing. Who wants to tell the parent of a second grader that the work being done by the child is somewhere in the less than competent range...but that's probably okay because we aren't told when the kid should be competent (let alone proficient)?

Moving on, we finally get to the Pièce de Résistance: Chapter Seven, "Prototype Learning Progressions." This is the kind of thing teachers might be used to seeing, where there are specific learning targets listed by grade band. Here is an example:


Holy Standards, Batman! Oh, and the picture above represents the more shorthand method for these. There are going to also be tables for each of the boxes shown which go into nauseating more detail. The volume of information is overwhelming.

It is at this point that I switched into bean counter mode. There are 12 Core Ideas for Life Science, 14 for Earth Science, 11 for Physical Science, 12 for Engineering and Technology, plus the 16 Practices. Keep in mind that the graphic above is for one Core Idea. There are 49 of these (+16 tables), each with their own lists of learning targets.

The mind boggles.

What is listed for Grades 6 - 8 alone for this "Idea" would take weeks and weeks. What happened to the "choice to avoid shallow coverage of a large number of topics and to allow more time for teachers and students to explore each idea in greater depth" described in the vision for this document? Even divvying up the Core Ideas and Practices among the grade levels means that a student would need to reach mastery for one every two weeks. I know that it doesn't really work that way---we wouldn't teach them in isolation, but that is still too tight of a timeline. There is no way a teacher is going to provide meaningful learning experiences, gather formative assessment, re-teach as necessary, allow for practice with a concept, and collect a variety of summative assessment information in order to determine that students are ready to move forward within an average two-week period. These frameworks are therefore setting up the need for some truly shitty classroom instruction for science.

Look, I'm all for a scientifically literate society. But this document is no roadmap for that. So here are my suggestions:
  • Significantly pare down the Core Ideas for Life, Earth, and Physical Science. Don't make science a collection of facts for students to memorize/learn. In my dream world of standards, there would be no more than three Ideas for each of these areas. 
  • Flesh out no more than 12 of the Practices (asking questions, modeling, interpreting data...). It is more important that we have a public who can think scientifically than recall the details of the Core Ideas. If we get graduates who can ask good questions and interpret data, we have a lot less to worry about in terms of people who don't "believe" in vaccinating children, evolution, climate change, etc.
  • Reduce the number of Core Ideas for Engineering and Technology to no more than six (four would be better). I can't believe I'm actually saying this as this section is the weakest of our current state standards for science. But the ones here show some thought. More importantly, they get at the ideas of creative problem solving I posted about earlier in the week.
Make no mistake, science teachers. These standards will be shoved down your throat in the next year or two. They are being developed by people who do not spend time in K-12 classrooms. Whether you love them or hate them, let your voice be heard...and soon.

14 July 2010

And Now a Word from Our Sponsors

In my job, I get a lot of inquiries from vendors. They know that we are a local control state (each district determines what they want to buy) and that the only budget associated with my job is for my teacher group. So why do they pester? Because even an off-the-record nod I make for a product is potentially a lot of money in their pockets. And there are plenty of teachers and districts who will ask me "Have you heard of Product X? What do you think about it?" So, I have a fine line to walk. I need to be familiar enough with whatever tech options are out there to be current, but not so much that I have too much bias. I don't always hit the right balance, but I try.

I was recently sitting in on a focus group for a new product---a collection of copyright-cleared digital resources for the classroom. I was kinda diggin' the presentation. And then the vendor said that one word that blew the whole thing for me:  alignment. "Our materials are aligned to all the state standards."

Bullshit.

Well, maybe that's a little harsh. It's just been my experience that any publisher will claim "alignment" about any product and any standard. They know it's a buzzword. And they know schools are willing to swallow what amounts to little more than random matches of vocabulary words between the product and the standards. Once a vendor says that magic word, I automatically distrust everything else which comes out of their mouth. Correlation, I accept. Alignment, I don't.

On this occasion, I did not decide to be diplomatic. I told this vendor (in front of a room full of people) that I did not appreciate their claim...and that if they wanted to use the term, then they needed to show that they had looked at content, context, and cognitive demand. Afterward, I had some other people in the room tell me that they were very grateful for this observation. We'll see if the vendor took our words to heart.

Even in this economy, there is money to be made out there. I could put ads on my blog. I could move to a corporate space (complete with Pepsigate) and allow my traffic to generate money for my pocket. To date, I have made no money off any presentation I have done or material I have developed. I get lots of requests via email each week to pimp a site or product here (not to mention the comment spam I am constantly battling). I won't say that this space or my time isn't for sale. I hope to be doing some presentations for money in the next year, perhaps put together a Data Viz book for educators; however, a blog really is a relationship among many community members. Some of you read and lurk...others comment...still others share links and additional resources. It doesn't matter what level of participation you choose to have---what's important is that this is a healthy and trustworthy ecosystem for all of us. I understand that vendors have a different purpose with the relationships they build. It's just too bad that they don't get that you can't buy credibility.

One Step at a Time

I was part of an impromptu conversation about how skills with technology tools/programs evolve. We thought the stages went something like this (using PowerPoint as an example):
  1. The Basics  The person learns to place text and graphics using the pre-installed templates. The product won't "wow" anyone, but it's adequate.
  2. The Explosion  The person starts using every available bell and whistle: different transitions, colors, etc. The product will send the audience looking for eye bleach.
  3. The Survival of the Fittest  The person hones their repertoire of "skills" into a consistent set of slides. The product will engage the audience.
As much as we wished that Step 2 could be cut out, we decided that it was important because it is the stage where you really start to play with something and test the limits. If you don't go wild, you don't know where the lines of good use are. I have seen this happen with students and with adults. I have experienced it myself. It's akin to how our brains grow and change over time---explosions of neural growth with pruning away of connections that aren't reinforced.

Are there other steps along the way? How do we encourage people to move to the next step?

12 July 2010

Trying Times These Are

Yoda by Orange_Beard CC-BY
One of the most common points of discussion I have when I'm talking grading with teachers is "effort." Both teachers and students like the idea of putting a price on the perception of trying. Some even go so far as to equate effort with learning. (If a student "tries hard," but can't demonstrate any learning, then they still get some points.) I hear this refrain most often in reference to SPED and ELL students. "Gosh, they just tried so hard."

I understand the desire to reward effort. We want to be supportive of kids and coach them along. Work ethic is something we value. I also advocate for embracing subjectivity in grading. And yet, I think we are making a real mistake in including effort in the mix.

I can think of numerous times in the classroom where I had a student tell me that they should get an "A" on a project because they tried really hard. From the demonstration of learning I saw (i.e. poor quality work), I usually disagreed on both counts of trying hard and earning an A. As I think about those times now, what I realize is that we is that we had a major communication issue: We had no common definition of "trying hard." To a teen, procrastinating until 1 a.m. and then staying up the rest of the night to complete a project that had a month long timeline represented a diligent work ethic. Furthermore, they wanted that recognized by the grade---not the content of the actual project. I saw things differently. I didn't think waiting until the last possible moment and getting no sleep represented a disciplined approach to one's work. And while I might not have directly given a grade for that, the low quality work that resulted from such an ethic was reflected in the score.

There are relatively simple fixes for something like this. More specific communication and agreement about what the grade for learning represents, as well as a separate score for work ethic, would be a good start. Believe it or not, I have seen a decent attempt at a rubric for work completion. As long as you don't mix the scores during reporting, it's all good.

But this doesn't solve the "pity grade" issue---the one created when teachers are the ones who want to trade credit for trying as a replacement for meeting standards. If you have students who are eligible for modified grades (SPED, G/T), then you have some options. This doesn't help in the area of science, however, as there is no such thing as an exception for that subject area. According to the feds, everyone can learn grade level science. I don't know that I have a good answer for the kid who doesn't qualify for special services of any sort, stays engaged in class, comes in for extra help, gets tutoring---and still can't meet the standards. The sad fact is that "trying" does not equal "learning." I'll bet none of us wants to depend on a physician who got through med school by trying hard. If you're sick, you want the most knowledgeable person about treatment that you can find. So what do we do with kids who "try hard" according to both their and our measures? 
  • Report progress whenever possible. Maybe the kid isn't at standard yet, but capture and share whatever growth you can. 
  • Report work ethic---not as part of the grade, but as one of your observations of the student.


I used to tell my students that my classroom was a place where equal meant that everyone had to get to the same minimum point (the standards), but fair was up to the individual. There were trying times for all of us along the way, but perhaps there will be better solutions in the future.

    11 July 2010

    Creative Problem Solving

    Fair warning that this post will be more rambly than usual. I am hoping that your insights will help me glue some ideas together.

    It all started with this:


    The quick and dirty answer to me is simply that we learn and retain what is most urgent to our needs. That could be for a test on Friday or for something you will continue to use throughout a lifetime. I could get slightly more esoteric and answer a question with a question: How long do you have to retain something in order to say that you've learned it?  But out of everything in that original tweet, I somehow got fixated on the parenthetical comment about math.

    I am not a math-hater or mathphobic. And yet, I can't claim that other than basic stats, I've ever put anything beyond my junior high math experience to use.

    I know what you're going to say---it's all the same things I've heard myself saying to other people who go so far as to say high school math is a waste. (a) Some students do move into careers where they commonly use algebra, geometry, trig (and even pre-calculus). Just because some math might not be part of the daily lives of everyone doesn't mean it isn't useful to someone. (b) It's not the algorithms that are important, it's the mathematical reasoning that evolves. Math is a language of patterns. We learn to become better problem-solvers---a needed skill for everyone---through study of mathematics.  (c) Math is all around you! Just because you don't use calculus does not mean calculus has not been used to shape the world you live in. (d) Science is an application of math. How can you do science and not use math?

    Have I covered them all?

    I'd really like to focus on B for the moment. A and C are cop-out sorts of arguments, even though I use them myself. And D? Not germane to my particular train of thought at this time. Maybe later, D.

    I'm really struggling to buy B. Part of the reason I'm grasping at straws is that I have yet to see math standards for high school that did not focus on algorithms. Heck, take a look at the new Common Core Standards for math. It is a collection of math facts without the "why." Here's a taste from the functions portion:


    My question is, why is this important for every child in America to know and be able to do? I'm not saying that this is math without purpose. There are professions which use this sort of thing on a regular basis. What I'm wondering is what the So what? is for everyone else? What is the nugget of reasoning everyone can take away? And if we can identify that...shouldn't that be the standard instead of the example algorithms?

    Mixed in with my muddled thinking about this was a Newsweek article on The Creativity Crisis. It first made me shake my tiny fist at my former district, which defined "gifted" by IQ and used no other measures (such as the Torrance Tests for Creativity); but deeper inspection made me wonder if we are substituting math for creativity:

    To understand exactly what should be done requires first understanding the new story emerging from neuroscience. The lore of pop psychology is that creativity occurs on the right side of the brain. But we now know that if you tried to be creative using only the right side of your brain, it’d be like living with ideas perpetually at the tip of your tongue, just beyond reach.

    When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

    Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

    Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.

    I can see this sort of thing happening in math---but I can see it happening with all sorts of content. I can't help but wonder if we've gone math-crazy in this country because we think that teaching algorithms will model or mimic this creative process. (Or worse yet...in our Barbie-like attitude that "Math is hard." we begin to associate ability to do advanced math with "smart.")

    What would happen if we replaced a requirement for upper level math in high school with courses in creative problem solving?

    Rules of the Road

    Way back when I was a beginning teacher and working on a Masters degree, someone handed me this list of classroom rules (author unknown):
    1. There is no such thing as a dumb question or a dumb answer.
    2. None of us is perfect.
    3. Accept your limitations. It's okay to say "I don't know."
    4. You have a right to pass during discussions.
    5. Take risks and try new things in here. This is the place to bomb out.
    6. If you don't understand, ask. If you still don't understand, ask again.
    7. If you don't agree, say so and explain your thoughts.
    8. Don't criticize people personally. Agree or disagree with their ideas.
    9. Teasing, putting other people down, and sarcasm are not allowed.
    10. It's good to have a mind of your own.
    I included this list with my syllabus for many years---a written offer to students. I can't say that any of us had 100% follow-through with the ideas, but I always thought it was a good description of what should be a safe learning environment.

    For whatever reason, this list popped into my head recently. Maybe it was dealing with all the ISTE "sheeple." Perhaps it was talking with some teachers new to the idea of educational technology and listening to their reactions. Or I might have just needed the reminder when I was feeling like the only voice of sanity in the room. I thought I would pass it along in case anyone out there might like to use it (with students or adults). After all, the 2010 - 2011 school year is creeping up quickly.

    10 July 2010

    Simon Says

    While attending ISTE 2010 recently, I had the opportunity to chat with some teachers who were new to educational technology---at least in the form in which it was presented at the conference. These teachers got to see several "experts." I listened carefully to what was shared from those sessions, never letting on that I had either seen these presenters other times and that I had some rather strong opinions about a few of them. It was a good reality check for me---the opportunity to see things again through their new eyes. I actually cringed a little at a few things they shared.
    • One guru scared the hell out of them. With his rapid-fire delivery of his vision of the future and how we aren't preparing kids for it, he outlined the surest way to make teachers feel terrible about what they've been doing in the classroom. (My reaction to seeing this same speaker last November is here.) These teachers have probably been doing well by their students. There are enough people pointing fingers at teachers these days---they don't need another.
    • Yet another guru told them that "Twitter is a professional tool." She went on to clarify that it should only be used for communications in a professional manner and nature. Not terrible advice, but also not very encouraging for the techno-n00b. I would agree that you should try not to tweet something that might get you fired, but to imply that there is no room to be a human being with that channel is ridiculous. We are not one-dimensional beings and should not project ourselves that way. The people I connect with most via social-networking are those who I get to know on a personal level in addition to the science and/or education stuff. 
    • And then, there was this pronouncement:

    Um...wow. I'll leave it to you to decide what to make of such a statement.

    There are a couple of good lessons for me that emerged from the discussions with the new-to-edtech'ers. One is simply that it takes time for people to reflect and build good bullshit detectors. These were very intelligent and well-spoken teachers with many years in the trenches. And yet the fervor of the conference combined with the novelty of the information was able to subvert that experience---at least for the moment. My hunch is that they have thought a lot more about things after they got home. It makes me wonder how we support new learning at these conferences and build in time and opportunity for critical thinking. I'm picky about what goes into my RSS and my Twitter feed. I read and follow those who share, but not those who preach (such as the examples above). I worry people thrown into the mix who can only hear the noise and haven't learned to listen for the quiet voices yet.

    The second takeaway for me relates to my own presentations. I really do try to be conscious that there will be people in the room who view me as an expert. (Whether or not they should goes back to the point above.) I have been caught off guard a time or three when someone would ask "Did you just say -----?" And the fact was, I had---but it was not really what I had meant. I have become more and more thoughtful about choosing my words; however, the "Simon says..." attitude of the three examples from the ISTE conference make it clear that I need to keep being vigilant and intentional about what leaves my mouth during those times I am in front of a room of educators. I do try and remember that I am not anonymouse, but there may be more I need to do.

    07 July 2010

    ASCD 2011: The Early Squee

    I found out today that one of my proposals (data visualization) for the 2011 ASCD Conference in San Francisco was accepted and will be a ticketed session. This means that people must pre-register to get in the door. Considering the awesome learning experience I had this March in San Antonio, I can hardly wait to go again.

    I'm still waiting to hear whether or not my grading session proposal will be accepted, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

    I have a lot to think about between now and March 2011. I learned a lot this year about working with large groups (e.g. 200 people) and want to apply those a-ha's to make the upcoming sessions unforgettable experiences for those who walk into the room.

    For now, I'm just super-excited about going back to a conference I respect and having another opportunity to be with some outstanding educators. Hope I'll see you there!

    05 July 2010

    Paper or Plastic

    I've found myself thinking about the following question quite a lot as of late: What's so bad about paper?

    In April, there was a lot of faldaral in the edusphere about "teaching paperless" for Earth Day. I had to wonder why. We grow trees now for the purpose of paper---it isn't as if logging companies are running willy-nilly throughout the land to grab trees. Trees are renewable. The stuff that makes electronics is not. That stuff gets mined in ways that destroy the land. It comes from third-world countries where child labour is common. It gets "recycled" in ways that make workers go blind and suffer terrible health issues. I know that paper production uses chemicals and bleaches (and if you've ever smelled a pulp mill, you know it's one of the most noxious things)---that mills use electricity, too.  But, is my computer (and the electricity it demands) a more ecologically friendly option? When we tie "paperless" with "Earth Day," are we really sending the right message?

    Perhaps I should dig a little deeper.

    In my mind, the advantage of digital is that it saves space, time, and can enhance organization and archiving---not that it saves the environment. I can store far more documents and manipulate them in more ways digitally than I can on paper. The amount of data I can manage is far greater. But none of these things mean that paper is evil.

    I recently heard about a school that used its 1-to-1 program to go "all digital." Because every student had a laptop, they were no longer allowed to turn things in on paper. And while nearly everyone who heard this story thought "Ooo...so progressive! So 21st Century!" I thought, "What if a student likes to use paper? What if a kid is better able to organize thoughts and communicate with words and pictures better with paper?"  I don't understand why one tool has to replace the other. Is there not room for both?

    Someone shared a link to this post wherein the presenter brags about his paperless presentation and implies that needing paper is for losers. Because, hey, in the future, kids won't need paper---so let's just chuck it all now. Sorry, but that is not very respectful of student (and adult learner) needs. If someone wants paper to take notes---so freakin' what? Have we taken the time to help people learn to organize their thoughts in a digital world?

    I admit that all of this is through my own lens. I use both paper and plastic. When I am planning professional development, I tend to go back and forth. There is something about the act of writing---and the ability to place ideas wherever I want in whatever form I want that sparks my creativity. I can't do that on the computer. When it's time to put things into a format---then I move to digital. I like to use whatever the right tool for the job is. I don't assume that my computer is a hammer and everything I need to do is automatically a nail.

    If you're an all-paper person---Go you!  If you're an all-plastic person---Awesome! And if you're somewhere in between (bi-media?)---Enjoy! But let's not fool ourselves that one is better than another or that one is a "must" and the other is for stupid people. Why not embrace the diversity of options that can allow more people to find something that works for them?